In The Electric Mist
Ned Beatty, John Goodman
2.5 out of 5 stars
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson
Strange things seem to happen down New Orleans way... I once dated a beguiling bayou beauty whose brother discreetly told me if I broke her heart, what was left of me would be hauled out to the swamps for the gators to feast on. Guess he must've been a consultant for "In the Electric Mist," because that's one of several potentially absorbing plots that sinks deeper than a shrimper's net.
Dave Robicheaux (the always riveting Tommy Lee Jones), is called to the scene of a murder. The victim has been sliced and diced, and the local law enforcement admits her death may be another in a long string of killings by a serial swamp slasher. Robicheaux lines up his suspects. At the top of his list is his old baseball buddy, the local gumbo godfather, Julie "Baby Feet" Balboni (John Goodman, having a bayou blast). Baby Feet recently invested in a film being shot in the area, and Robicheaux's convinced his old teammate is up to something more than just being a patron of the arts.
Award-winning actor Elrod Sykes (a totally miscast Peter Sarsgaard), is the seldom on set star of the local film project. Sykes is a barfing, irresponsible mess who's somehow managed to win the love of his co-star Kelly Drummond (Kelly Macdonald, so disposable they didn't bother changing her first name), who wants nothing more than to save Sykes from himself. Much to Robicheaux's dismay, Sykes also happens to be his daughter's favorite actor.
Robicheaux first encounters Sykes and Macdonald when Sykes' nearly crashes his expensive sports car into him while trying to negotiate a routine turn. Robicheaux threatens to hang a DWI charge on Sykes until he blurts out he saw a skeleton wrapped in chains submerged in the swamp. Sykes' tall tale brings Robicheaux back forty years... When he was young, he saw a black man, bound in chains, being chased into the swamp and shot... You should be able to see through the mist immediately - somehow the young woman's murder and Robicheaux's suppressed memory of seeing the black man's demise are going to connect.
Baby Feet: What's going on, Dave?
Robicheaux: Had a long night last night. Found a girl last night in a barrel down in St. Martin's parish. She was covered up in blue crabs.
Baby Feet: Oughtta run her again. We'll have gumbo.
Levon Helm, the last living lead singer for The Band, plays Confederate General John Bell Hood. (Huh?). Since Hood died in 1879, he may be a manifestation of Robicheaux's conscience, or the result of Dave having been slipped an LSD mickey at a party. The idea of Robicheaux having a cordial chat with a Civil War general is ludicrous, even if he is Robicheaux's hero, but Helm gives his ghostly philosopher more compassion and wisdom than the script affords the living characters. I'm loath to give anybody credit for playing a Confederate, but Helm's as good an actor as he is a drummer and a singer, and that's mighty good. The guy who sang "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," "Up on Cripple Creek" and other Band classics has carved out a handsome second career as an actor, having snared major roles in "The Right Stuff," and "Matawan." (He starred with Jones once before, playing Loretta Lynn's father in "Coal Miner's Daughter.") He can add his portrayal of John Bell Hood to his impressive body of work.
Helm's voice is still sandy from his bout with throat cancer, giving Hood genuine grit. There's no mistaking he's a genuine rebel. Dressed in a mud and blood spattered Rebel uniform, Helm's Hood deals out measured parables about sticking to one's guns. Sadly, Helm only appears in a few scenes. The first time he appears, he issues out of the ghostly amber of a campfire like swamp gas:
Robicheaux: Am I dead?
Hood: You don't look like it to me.
Robichaux: You're at Gettysburg. The war's over.
Hood: It's never over. I would think you'd know that. You were a lieutenant in The United States Army weren't you?
Robicheaux: My head hurts...My head hurts...
Hood: Venal and evil people are destroying the world you were born in. It's us against them, my good friend. Don't compromise your principals or abandon your cause.
Robicheaux: Do you know what's waiting for me down the road?
Hood: For one reason of another, I find I have more insight into the past than into the future.
Mary Steenburgen steams up her scenes as Robicheaux's wife, Bootsie. Along with General Hood, Bootsie is the film's calming conscience. Characters named Boostie seldom get much to do, but Steenburgen's warmth will make you believe that she and Jones have been a couple for nigh on to twenty years. John Goodman gets to enjoy playing a nefarious, not necessarily villainous character, cussin' up a blue streak. (With all the variations of accents being tossed around I actually thought his name was "Baby Fat," which believe me, suits him.) Goodman's character runs red herring interference for the film's real bad guy. The problem is Robicheaux spends so much time pointing a finger at Baby Feet, trying to intimidate him and even set him up, you'll figure out pretty quickly Baby's elevation to prime suspect is a rather transparent device to fatten up the plot. As one character with an I.Q. of a crawdad points out, Baby Feet would order a killing, but he wouldn't dirty his hands carrying one out.
Ned Beatty ("Deliverance," "Nashville," "Network") is one of Hollywood's busiest character actors. His role of Twinky LaMoyne, the owner of the town's sugar plant, is a series of brief walk ons he could do in a catatonic state. (Twinky...sugar plant...I get it.) Ned's screen time consists of denial - he denies being partners with Baby Feet, denies being partners with ex-cop Murphy Doucet, whose security company is watching over the film, then denies being the type of person he is:
Beatty: A lot happened between the races back in that era, but we're not the same
people, are we?
Robicheax: I think we are.
It's a waste to throw a blanket of boredom over an actor like Ned Beatty. Ned may be in the bayou, but he barely breaks a sweat.
Musician Buddy Guy plays Sam "Hogman" Patin, who throws Robicheaux a few clues to crack the identity of the black man found chained in the swamp - and how he got there. "Hog Man" is a real old school southern black man, proud, but wary of the white man and his wrath. Guy is as stiff as Jeff Davis' moldering corpse. Stick to the guitar, Buddy.
Although it's set in New Orleans, "In the Electric Mist" could have been shot anywhere. The only sights that separate the area from the rest of the south are the air boats, hanging kudzu, and stock footage of the devastation left behind by Katrina - including the shocking sight of a house resting on top of a truck.
There are no jolts or tricky turns. The only surprise is the anti-climatic reckoning meted out to the real villain who isn't all that scary, just sleazy. (He's so incidental to the action you'll be hard pressed to find the actor's name in the credits.) There's also a real cornball ending involving Robicheaux, Hood and Robicheaux's daughter, Alafair. Might've worked for an episode of "Kolchak: The Night Stalker" (in fact that's where I first saw it), but not for a film with so many series issues. Another unnecessary practice is the annoying habit adopted by some of the actors of not making eye contact with Robicheaux when they talk to him, as if they're lost in a fugue or reciting some southern fried Shakespearian soliloquy.
So why did "In the Electric Mist" disappear from screen as quickly as a mint julep on an August afternoon? The plot, kids, the plot. It's telegraphed. Atmosphere can not mask atrophy. When Robicheaux sets out on the trail of not one, but two killers, he's followed by a mysterious dark car and set up for the murder of a witness. Duh, I wonder who's doing that? But "In the Electric Mist" is worth watching for the cast's worthy performances, particularly Helm and Jones. Jones is electric and Helm deserves every medal he wears on his chest. If the south ever does rise again, I want to be as dead as General Hood. But if it does, I hope Helm leads the charge.