Tommy Lee Jones has starred in numerous murder mysteries, including some high profile film productions. Some good, some not.
He has also been in some smaller films, some not even on the radar, but there are some gems.
More money does not ensure quality. The bigger the subject, the greater the expectation and chance for failure.
For the example, In the Electric Mist, based on the novel by James Lee Burke, who sets his stories in places like dusty Texas and swampy Louisiana, could not decide what it wanted to be. The film had a medium/sized budget and directed by Bertrand Tavernier (Round Midnight, Life and Nothing But), so it had great creative parents, plus a rock-solid cast.
Jones was an interest choice for the film. Thirteen of Burke’s books are are centered on the fictional detective Dave Robicheaux, including In the Electric Mist. Burke’s detective was also featured in Heaven’s Prisoner (1996), starring Alec Baldwin as Robicheaux. The two films are nothing alike, including the Robicheaux character.
The film is earnest but somewhat incoherent and the pacing, dreadfully slow. I really wanted to like this film, but found very little to hang onto.
Jones is like one of my other favorite actors, Robert Duvall, who is attracted to stories with rich characters, but that studios do want to finance. These are personal, no frills film projects that sometimes a Jones or Duvall will even direct to get it made. Films with either of these actors gets my attention.
One thing I liked about In the Electric Mist was the wonderful supporting cast that included John Goodman, Mary Steenburgen, Peter Sarsgaard and Levon Helm.
Duvall directed The Apostle (1997), Tango Assassination (2003) and The Wild Horse (2015), and produced several others. Duvall adds class and name value, not necessarily box office value. He was passed age 60 when he directed The Apostle.
In the Valley of Elah (2007) is one of Jones’ best performances. It is a small film by Hollywood standards and the cast includes Susan Sarandon, Cherlize Theron, Josh Brolin, Frances Fisher, Jason Patric, Barry Corbin and James Franco. Written and directed by Paul Haggis, whose screenplays include Million Dollar Baby, Flags of Our Fathers, Crash, Quantum of Solace and a few other films. Haggis won Academy Awards for Mission Dollar Baby and Crash.
Haggis based the film on real events from a news article. The mood of the film is somber, and every relationship in the film, except for Det. Sanders and her son, is disjointed. There is a lot of underlying pain and betrayal among those who are supposed to be close. The relationship between Sanders and her son is a symbol of hopefulness in a world of danger and confused alliances.
My comments probably make you want to run out and find this film! Well, I don’t blame you. What you will see are fine actors in full alignment with the script, and a director that lets the story lead without pounding music, fancy editing or CGI. These are real characters.
At the beginning of the film, retired army sergeant Hank Deerfield helps a custodian at a school, correctly display the American flag; he has it upside down. Then Deerfield proceeds to find his Mike, his missing army son, who later not only turns up dead, his body was cut into many pieces and dumped in a field.
This is a murder mystery that is unsatisfying on many levels as Deerfield pushes his way into Sanders’ investigation of his son’s murder. Besides her, there is a real lack of sympathy and urgency in uncovering the grisly facts in the murder.
Deerfield is disappointed in lack of empathy and priority of law enforcement and the army. As a retired sergeant, he expects clarity from the brass and loyalty from the enlisted men of his son’s buddies. Deerfield is discovering a very different response from institutions he has spent his life blindly supporting.
Jones turns in a heartfelt performance with a measured reaction. He conveys so much doing very little, just the right amount. A bewildered, empty expression says how unprepared he is for what faces him. He is unable to console his broken wife (Sarandon) who unleashes what he is incapable of expressing. His two sons followed him into the army, now both are dead. The distance between Deerfield and his wife is vast. There is a scene of Deerfield telling a bedtime story to Sanders’ son, where shows there is warmth and compassion inside him, even though it is throttled down.
In the last scene, Deerfield takes a flag his son has sent from Iraq, and displays it on the flagpole of the school, this time intentionally upside down, and tapes the ropes in position. His statement on the state of affairs.
The film will leave you feeling a bit sad, but it should. In all the grief and disillusion, there is a thread of hope. Sometimes, that’s all it takes.