The above illustration, "Blowing Bubbles," has been adapted for use here by generous permission from the artist, Cyril Rolando.

March 18, 2009

Unelectrifying 'Mist'

Spring fever is here. I can tell. I always enjoy the initial bursts of green and brief hours of almost-warm temperatures, but nature's renaissance always does something bad to my psyche. I get depressed. Apathetic. Negative. And this year I also got the mother of all head colds to go with it. So the thing to do when you get like I am now is not to see In the Electric Mist. Wait until you're in a more charitable mood than I.

Someone else will have to write the post that says what a terrific film was made from one of James Lee Burke's finest books, because I'm pretty sure that even without the head cold and clouds of apathy draining my will to blog, that was not a good movie. I've seen worse, sure, but the disappointment is intense when a mediocre film is derived from a great book.

And no one can blame the actors. Tommy Lee Jones is perfectly cast as Dave Robicheaux (but I confess he has always been my first choice to tackle the role), Mary Steenburgen fulfills my mental image of Bootsy. Levon Helm's take on General John Bell Hood will never be equalled (and only partly because Hood rarely is a movie character). Ned Beatty as a scum-sucking Southern baddie? Natch, he does his usual bang-up job. Even musician Buddy Guy is rightly cast as the knowing bluesman Hogman Patin. John Goodman as 'Babyfeet' Balboni should have been perfect as the NOLA mobster but Goodman phoned in his performance (and didn't pay attention even then, his accent wavered so badly) so he's the only one of the cast who let me down. And I don't even blame him, because if daily production work was as choppy and incoherent as the film turned out to be I wouldn't be turning in my best work either. And rumor has it there were some troubles during production, notably between Tommy Lee Jones and directer Bernard Tavernier.

Granted, there are some 15 minutes of the director's cut missing from the US dvd. But I really don't think the missing minutes would correct all the problems. It might smooth some of the jerky transitions, explain a little more of the story, maybe even fix the lousy ending, but I don't know that a mere 15 minutes would add the necessary depth to the characters or restore a real sense of suspense to the mystery. When a viewer can barely remember the name and face of the guy who turns out to be the villain chopping up women, it's hard to work up more than a mild 'is that right?' reaction to learning he's the baddie.

Only if you're a fan of the Dave Robicheaux series and have read the terrific book the film is based on, In the Electric Mist With Confederate Dead, will the movie make any sense to you, but I'd be surprised if it satisfied you. It did not me. Such a shame, with that great cast of actors doing their darnedest (all but Goodman) and that evocative setting, not to have found an equally outstanding screenwriter and a director to do them, and author Burke, justice.


  1. Hmmm, haven't seen this yet. I probably still will but I have to admit that I was worried about TL Jones playing Dave. I think he's a bit old for that role; ITEMWCD is 16 years old. Robicheaux wouldn't have been in his 60s then. But, TLJ is a great actor, nonetheless. I'd probably have trouble picturing any actor as Robicheaux quite honestly. He's just so distinct a character and I've created my own image of who he is. That always happens with me and books that are made into movies...the almost never measure up!

  2. I had mentioned to Jen a short time back about the release of this movie (sorry, I should have copied you on that, too). I've never read any in the DR series, but I had seen the only other movie based on one of them: the Alec Baldwin starred, Heaven's Prisoners. I kind of enjoyed it, but I'm told by others who read the book that that film wasn't adapted well.

    Perhaps, the problems that you cite were the primary reasons for it going the direct-to-DVD route. Of course, the European release is longer and may be the director's preferred version. Why the U.S. releases get the 'cut' treatment is a running issue for me. Hadn't heard of any actor/director 'differences', but that would also be an added factor to this bad outcome.

    Anyway, good to have your review and glad to see you surface ;-)

  3. "but I confess he has always been my first choice to tackle the role"

    Wait a minute, not Alec Baldwin?

    Seriously, this came out already? Did this get a quick release in L.A. and the NYC, before going to video?

  4. So it didn't even get a perfunctory big screen release after all. This odd to read about it making the rounds in the film festivals and then it just winds up on DVD forty days later.

  5. Cormac, I'm not sure, I think the movie did get released to the big screen in Europe but I know it went straight to dvd in the US. I don't know why the producers thought they needed to cut the film when lately the trend seems to be letting films run at least 15-20 minutes past the point of entertainment.

    Baldwin wasn't my first pick as Robicheaux but I'm not opposed to him doing it (and I keep meaning to see 'Heaven's Prisoners') because when he puts his all into a role he's a really fine actor. But my mental image of Dave always was closer to TLJ. Jones just has that air of aged dissipation and abrupt violence that for me is at the heart of both the character and the setting.

    Michael, I remember reading (but don't remember where) an interview with Tavernier who described Jones as being good to work with when the camera was rolling, but otherwise he had no comment. And at some point during the shooting I read a blurb that Jones wasn't happy with the direction the film was heading. I really don't know anything about Tavernier and I've never heard that Jones was a diva, so I put it down to personal chemistry. Sometimes two people just aren't going to be good co-workers.

    Yeah, I have just been sort of skating the surface lately. I hope I snap out of it soon.

  6. Hi there Corey
    I couldn't find your personal email anywhere, so I'm posting this in your comments:

    I'm a big fan of your blog, and am happy to now be able to show my appreciation by bestowing on it a Premio Dardos award!

    You can read a full description of what the awards are here:
    (this is by the person who gave the award to my blog)
    And the piece where I mention your blog is at:

    Congratlations again on having such a GREAT blog. You obviously put a vast amount of work into it, and deserve the recognition!


    Modesty Blaise Webhead

  7. MB Webhead: Thank you. I am indeed honored because I believe the award originated among comics bloggers, and I am a far cry from that creative and ingenious realm. However, I am a huge fan of Modesty Blaise. But after reviewing your blog and website, I clearly am not even playing in your league. And that is a terrific website. I'd love to have a poster of that Jensen mag cover. I do know the lyrics to the Cal Tjader theme song: 'She's the perfect mistress of her art, she's the perfect mistress, too. Modesteee, Modesteee.' I bet that IDs me as some kind of geek, eh?

    Anyway, thanks again, and I'll post shortly.

  8. I haven't read a lot of Burke outside of his short stories that make it in anthologies, but I can't imagine he was too pleased with "Heaven's Prisoners." Baldwin really didn't mesh as Robicheaux and the movie was more memorable for the plane crash scene and Teri Hatcher's lack of clothing in one scene.

    The story never clicks and if you look at Scott Frank's other adaptations ("Out Of Sight" and "Get Shorty"), you wonder if he had just kind of gave up on the project.

  9. I gotta get busy and watch HP soon. I really enjoyed the film of 'Out of Sight' but after reading the book, I think that story lent itself to a rather straightforward adaptation to film. There's so much going on in Burke's books that it may overwhelm a screenwriter trying to work in enough of it to make sense of the overall story but not so much that he/she ends up scripting a mini-series. But maybe a mini-series would be the best way to tackle Burke's novels, there's so much more time to allow for character development and all of the different story threads Burke weaves in.

  10. Agreed, a mini-series is always the best way to go when bringing a book or series of books to the screen. That was the beauty of "The Wire," the characters had time to develop and the viewer saw all the subplots and motivations, just like in a novel.

    Maybe Showtime or Starz could take up the mantle, it would certainly give them some traction against a weakened HBO and they'd make the money back on DVD and pay-per-view.

  11. I don't have premium cable, but I know I have to get off my duff and get dvds of 'The Wire' to watch. Just the writing credits are persuasive, I don't even need all the great reviews it got.