In the Valley of Elah

October, 2007, Drama

Directed by:Paul Haggis

Starring:Tommy Lee Jones, Charlize Theron, Susan Sarandon, Jason Patric, and James Franco

As the war drifts through its 5th inconclusive year, writer/director Paul Haggis and Tommy Lee Jones join an increasing number of Hollywood’s biggest names in presenting a harshly critical view of The Administration’s decision to invade Iraq. (A pair of the most prominent new films - - Rendition and Lions For Lambs - - will be out in the next few weeks.) Whether audiences find Elah compelling or thoroughly annoying will largely depend on their geopolitical point of view, but everyone should agree that, in his portrayal of retired Army M.P. Hank Deerfield, Jones has fashioned a brilliant performance that ranks among his very finest. Elah deserves to be seen for that reason alone.

Deerfield, a small town contractor, learns that his youngest son Mike has returned from a tour of duty in Iraq and gone A.W.O.L. Hank flatly rejects that explanation and drives to his son’s army base to pursue the boy’s disappearance personally. He’s met with a wall of military obfuscation and misdirection from Mike’s superior officers and even the men in his unit, so when the badly disfigured remains of a body which cannot be immediately identified turn up just outside the base, Hank turns to local police detective Emily Sanders, (Charlze Theron) for assistance. A jurisdictional tug of war ensues, offering this once patriotically-dedicated father a worm’s eye view of how current members of the military see their role in a partisan conflict none of them seem capable of clearly articulating, much less defending. As clues as to the identity of the body emerge and evidence points first in one direction and then another, Haggis interweaves the elements of a traditional murder mystery with a caustic examination of the effects this conflict is having on the young men and women deployed to conduct it. Clarity in the investigation is offset by Hank’s growing unease with his own values; can service to one’s country be as clear-cut and unconditional as he previously assumed? By Elah’s end, he’s made a small, first step in publicly challenging what he’d always unquestionably supported.

With a face as weathered as old barn siding and a gruff, standoffish personality which imparts accusation to the simplest interaction, Jones electrifies the audience in a role which would have been impossible for a lesser talent. Wearing every one of his 61 years with weary stoicism, this gifted actor’s Hank Deerfield personifies the unease, cynicism and shame so many Americans feel about our involvement in what has become an international bloodbath. Agonizing over the possible loss of his son, Hank nevertheless spit-shines his shoes and makes his neatly-tucked motel room bed, turning those personal habits into silent tributes to the values embraced by those who serve in our nation’s armed services. It’s a wrenching performance in every detail, perfectly underscored by Susan Sarandon’s aching depiction of Hank’s grieving wife.

In Million Dollar Man, Oscar’s choice as best-written picture of 2004, Canadian-born Haggis demonstrated that he could employ his gift for pungent dialogue in a “small film”. Then as writer and director, his Crash, (an ensemble examination of contemporary racial tensions in L.A.) won both directing and writing Oscars last year, making this 50-something former television-series writer a significant creative force in Hollywood. But if Crash went out of its way to sermonize as well as entertain, Elah can be legitimately accused of nearly abandoning the latter in pursuit of the former; despite the presence of Jones, Theron and Sarandon, I suspect that the public’s reception of this movie will be disappointing precisely because of Haggis’ hectoring tone, which grows painfully melodramatic, culminating in Hank’s treatment of an American flag in the film’s closing frame. As a straight forward storyteller, Haggis the artist is most appealing; as proselytizer for his anti-war position, (with which I fully concur) he flirts with the pedantic.

Elah’s production values visually under gird the director’s depiction of dreary, low-end motel rooms, blue collar restaurants and the closed-off, “need to know” style of military life which comprise such a vital part of this storyline, but the movie would have had far more impact if Haggis had more confidence in his script and cast and simply pared back the rhetoric. His obviously heartfelt story makes its point so powerfully there’s no need to mount the pulpit to give it importance.

The verdict? Stunning performances and an ingenious plot burdened with well-intentioned but heavy-handed direction. 

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