In the Electric Mist (2009) puts to the test William Faulkner's observation (from Requiem for a Nun) that "The past is never dead. It's not even past." In the form of a long dead Confederate general, perhaps a ghost, perhaps a hallucination, General John Bell Hood advises the protagonist Dave Robichaux about his interest in two seemingly unrelated murders, one of which took place more than forty years before the time of the film.
Although this is a sloppy and often hackneyed film, two elements make it interesting. The first is Tommy Lee Jones, who plays ex-alcoholic police detective Robichaux. His performance is typically low-key but intense—as we saw In the Valley of Elah (2007) and No Country for Old Men (2007). It is always interesting to watch Tommy Lee Jones do what he does, and he does it well in this film. The second element of interest is the setting, mostly rural and small-town Louisiana. The film makes use of an array of local characters, none of whom -act particularly well, but all of whom give flavor to the film. Buddy Guy makes a brief appearance as a blues singer named Hogman, and though he cannot act either, it's interesting to see him in the film. John Sayles appears as the director of a film about the Civil War. He can act considerably less well than he can direct. Levon Helm, formerly of The Band, and the actor who played Loretta Lynn's father in A Coal Miner's Daughter (1980), plays General Hood here, in a casual, cryptic, offhand way.
Dave Robichaux grapples with the past in all sorts of ways in this film. He's a recovering alcoholic, a fact that has him often reacting to and resisting the habits of a past life. As a young boy, he saw a black man shot down by in the swamps. A drunken actor in the present time of the film discovers the chained bones of a dead man in the swamp, and Robichaux comes to believe they belonged to the man he saw killed. But what connection do they have to the murder he's investigating of a small-time prostitute? Robichaux feels guilty for having witnessed a crime he couldn't prevent, and guilty for being unable to solve the murder of the prostitute.
The production values in this film are only slightly better than what one would expect from a television crime drama. The characters are stereotyped—John Goodman as Julie "Baby Feet" Balboni, a crime boss turned film producer, Ned Beatty as Twinky LeMoyne, an aging cotton mill owner, Mary Steenbergen as Bootsie, a loving but long suffering wife to Robichaux. Their names suggest not only the stereotypes they embody but, in the case of Balboni and LeMoyne, that they are burlesques, parodies, broadly depicted types. As soon as we see Goodman surrounded by beautiful young woman and body guards, his grossly distended chest sagging out of and over the swim suit he wears at the pool, we know all we need to know—he's venal, corrupt, and probably guilty. We can stop thinking—his character pushes all the standard buttons. The plot of the film is circuitous and complex, and Robichaux figures things out mainly by managing in his own mind to recognize the links between past memories and more recent ones. The careful viewer will pick up on the clues well before Robichaux does.
Both Balboni and LeMoyne are particular Southern types—arrogant men whose power and money renders them immune to laws and moral codes that govern the rest of us. If violence needs to be committed, they get others to do it for them and then forget that they asked—they're absolved by forgetting. By struggling to remember and understand what he once saw and who he saw doing it, Robichaux achieves some kind of absolution—though LeMoyne and Balboni are apparently never tried for their crimes—Balboni at least goes to jail for tax evasion.
The most arbitrary and disparate element in the film is General Hood. Robichaux attends a party given by Balboni and drinks a glass of tea apparently spiked with LSD. He comes to when his car wrecks on a road in the swamp, and he follows a light to a gathering of camping Confederate soldiers, among whom is General Hood. Previously we've been told that sometimes strange lights—swamp gas—are seen in the swamp, and of course there's an association in Robichaux's mind between the Civil War film and the soldiers they encounter. Of course, the soldiers are not real, and General Hood is in one way or the other a figment of Robichaux's imagination. But he's also a relic of the past, the past that haunts Robichaux, and the past he must somehow reconcile to the facts of the present-day murder he's investigating.
The last image of the film, in which Robichaux's step-daughter is staring at an old photograph of General Hood with other Confederate soldiers, specifically recalls a similar photograph at the end of Kubrick's The Shining (1980).
The film is based on the James Lee Burke novel In the Electric Mist with the Confederate Dead. I have not read it but will soon do so. Certain aspects of the film and of Robichaux's character in particular remind me of Raymond Chandler and his protagonist Philip Marlowe.