Friday, August 20, 2010

Robicheaux Blues

So I recently watched In the Electric Mist. I gotta say, this movie comes A LOT closer to the heart and soul of James Lee Burke's work than Heaven's Prisoners ever did.

First, big ups on the casting: Tommy Lee Jones is a damn good Dave Robicheaux. (secret confession: when I read the books, I often pictured him in the lead role anyway, so I may be biased here.) One thing confused me about the earlier movie was how not-quite-right Alec Baldwin was. I mean, the guy's got the kind of darkness in his real life that Dave has in his fictional past-- you think he'd be perfect.

But Tommy Lee carries that sadness and regret that is a much, *much* larger part of Dave's life. He carries it in his face, his posture, every delivery of line. Personally, I think this might be because Baldwin embraces his own dark nature (which makes him so brilliant on 30Rock and It's Complicated). At any rate, Jones definitely gives us that battered, regretful hero who struggles with his own inner darkness even as he feels forced to confront the evils that the rest of us do one another on a daily basis. In a word, the casting was brilliant.

Mist's director (Bertrand Tavernier) was a great choice, too. I don't know nearly enough about studio politics to know how this happened, but the guy had an *incredible* feel for the HEART of the Robicheaux novels: where Heaven's Prisoners dwelt on the visuals of Southern Louisiana and the glamorous decay integral to that part of the world, Mist captures Robicheaux's inner torment as an implacable killer destroys the innocent and his every foray into the world of his suspects leaves him feeling like he just stuck his hand into an unflushed toilet.

Two things stuck out for me: the clever use of voiceover to share Robicheaux's thoughts (the technique is unpopular in Hollywood these days, but I think it's important to create the right atmosphere) and the by-the-book delivery of Dave's lines.

As a writer, Burke often ends his scenes by having secondary characters trying to give Robicheaux advice he refuses to hear. They stand frustrated while Dave pushes paper clips around his desk, squeezes his fists or just plain stares out into his own bleak middle distance.

Seen acted out on screen, the effect is unnerving.

My one reservation with this movie was the depiction of violence. These moments are well-choreographed but poorly shown. Tavernier uses middle-shots, showing the action but keeping the viewer at a distance. We lose that horrible sense of loss that Dave feels when he gives rein to his temper, that terrible immediacy of fist crashing into bone and horsetails of blood fanning the walls.

For me, I got the sense that the director was himself uncomfortable with personal violence. His visual language in the rest of the movie was eloquent, but in this one area he fell down. Any of you looking to catch the immediacy and feel I'd be looking for to depict the Burke novels, I recommend Lee Tamahori's Once Were Warriors or Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven.

But I quibble. Over all, I came away feeling satisfied and happy that somebody had finally done reasonable justice to James Lee Burke's novels...


Charles Gramlich said...

I loved the book but haven't seen the movie. I will probably watch it at some point.

ANNA-LYS said...

Thanks for sharing,
I like Tommy Lee Jones a lot
and don't miss a thing with him
got to watch this one, also :-D

(( hug ))

cs harris said...

I haven't seen this but will definitely give it a try. Thanks for the recommendation.

I'm currently reading Tin Roof Blowdown (a bit traumatic because I keep having unpleasant flashbacks and find my mind drifting off to compare where I was at such-and-such a time) and find it interesting that Burke wrote this one in the first person. Always intriguing when the author of a long established series shakes things up a bit.

Steve Malley said...

Charles, with your schedule, I'm not sure how movies *ever* get watched! DO you even, you know, sleep? :)

Anna-Lys, I'm a big fan of his too!

(and thanks for the hug-- it was *much* needed!)

and Candy, I thought the Robicheaux novels were ALL in first person. Certainly the older ones were. With, of course, those odd, detached moments where Dave extrapolates extraordinary human stories from forensic evidence...

Sidney said...

I liked the movie. Budget kind of short-shrifted the ghosts but overall a good adaptation, and I agree, truer than Heaven's Prisoners.

Lana Gramlich said...

I've never even heard of the movie, actually. Thanks for the review!