In the Valley of Elah
2007Director: Paul Haggis
Cast: Tommy Lee Jones, Susan Sarandon, Charlize Theron
man is looking for his son. The son, back home from a tour of duty in Iraq, has been missing for days. None of his friends have heard from him. He hasn’t called home. Everyone agrees that “this isn’t like him at all. He certainly would have called by now.”
So when an unfamiliar soldier, immaculately-adorned in brown military threads, arrives at the father’s door unannounced, both the father and the audience know what’s coming. But instead of frantically pressing the young soldier for his inevitably dire message, the father politely excuses himself and retreats to the bathroom to apply a bit of toilet paper to a recently-opened shaving wound. The man’s wrinkled, sunken visage divulges a misdirected need to maintain dignity in the face of the most dismal of circumstances. And even more tragically, it conveys the man’s desperate desire to embrace the last seconds of uncertainty before hearing that his youngest boy has suffered an unspeakable fate.
The films of Paul Haggis gather their strength from scenes like the one described above. Despite the director’s tendency for heavy-handedness and overwrought theatrics, Haggis is a talented and observant filmmaker who knows how to make the most out of the quiet, devastating details of our worst fears realized. His latest outing, In the Valley of Elah, tells the story of Hank Deerfield, a deeply religious ex-military policeman who staunchly supports the War on Terror in all of its increasingly dubious manifestations. That is until the investigation into his son’s brutal murder reveals grisly insights into the psychology of the modern soldier, disturbing even to an old-school military man like Deerfield.
When Elah works to chart the arc of its lead character’s internal struggles, the film is a provocative and important document of profound personal sorrow and institutional disillusionment. But the script expends far too much energy on police procedural genre-baiting, which might make for suspenseful, entertaining fare if the plotting wasn’t as conventional and bland as an episode of C.S.I.: Fallujah. Add to that a final scene, shot with the subtlety of a swift kick to the groin, and you’ve got a film that is alternately powerful and ludicrous (much like Haggis’ Best Picture winner, Crash).
The fact that the film succeeds at all is largely the result of Tommy Lee Jones’ unbelievably accomplished performance. Jones is enjoying a bit of an artistic renaissance of late, helming the uncompromising Western, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, and starring in what may turn out to be a return-to-form for the Coen Brothers, No Country for Old Men.We’ve seen him play hard-nosed, witty, no-nonsense types before, but in Elah his eyes betray an internal struggle between old-fashioned masculinity and the harsh realization that these deep-seeded notions are being rendered obsolete by the everyday atrocities of war. Jones offers a sympathetic portrayal of a man who loves God, loves his country, and thinks that these two affectations unerringly conflate into an unquestioning love of the armed forces and all its various “activities.” He understands Hank’s history and never allows the character to slip into the realm of caricature (nor does he gloss over the fact that Hank can erupt into a viciously racist prick under intense provocation).
In the Valley of Elah is a very flawed film, weighed down by a supremely boring middle section and an over-zealous performance from Charlize Theron (though, in her defense, the role already suffered from poor characterization before she laid her hands on it). But despite the film’s poor pacing and embarrassingly cheesy ending, it would be unwise for even the most fervent Haggis-haters to dismiss it. Elah features a career-defining performance from Jones and an important and timely two-fold theme. The first part of Haggis’ “message,” the part we might have expected going into the film, illuminates some of the chilling consequences this war has wrought upon the soldiers and their families. The second, and perhaps more intriguing, aspect explores how an intelligent person like Hank Deerfield can come to support the war in the first place, and how quickly his fantasy worldview, driven by false military mythologizing, can crumble at his feet.
In the Valley of Elah is currently playing in wide release
By: David Holmes
Published on: 2007-10-03