Gripping and Powerful
Paul Haggis is a brilliant screenwriter. With such credits to his name as Million Dollar Baby, Crash, Flags of Our Fathers, and Letters From Iwo Jima, there's no question he's one of the hottest assets going right now in Hollywood. If challenged with building a filmmaking team from the ground up, I'd sign Haggis and add whatever additional parts I could afford. He's that good. But one of his most overlooked traits, and one that may eventually prove to be his strongest, is his skill as a director. How else does one explain the resounding success of his first two directorial efforts – first, 2005's Crash and now In the Valley of Elah. And it's not just that he casts great actors. Anyone can do that. He somehow manages to get near-career performances from everyone involved. Oscar arguments were thrown around for no fewer than four or five of the performances in Crash, including Dillon's nomination, and at least three are borderline Oscar worthy here.
Tommy Lee Jones is the driving force in In the Valley of Elah, as Hank Deerfield, the dour father, husband and career military man whose love for country and freedom comes over his parental duties when his enlisted son, Mike, turns up on the AWOL list shortly after returning from active duty in Iraq. Not satisfied with the Army's anticipation that his son will eventually turn up, Hank packs his bags and drives from Tennessee to see what he can find out.
Upon his arrival at the military base in New Mexico, Hank quickly discovers that everything is not fine. In fact, not only are the local police detectives ill-equipped to handle the missing persons case, but a jurisdictional squabble with the military breaks out, meaning Hank must call upon his own Army MP training to help solve the case. He's aided by his only reliable contact within the police department, Det. Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron), a single mother facing sexism from her co-workers. Based on a true story, but with lots of fictional elements added for effect, In the Valley of Elah, turns into a gripping police procedural that has plenty to say about what war can do to people. Haggis uses the film's title, which refers to the location of David's heroic Biblical battle with Goliath, to great effect, mixing in many layers of subjective meaning and illustrative metaphors. It's what Haggis does best, and here he doesn't disappoint.
We know Haggis is all about subliminal threading and creative imagery, but In the Valley of Elah works best as just a simple murder mystery. Hank and Det. Sanders go up against evasive witnesses, military stonewalling and bumbling police work by the small town dicks. But interesting turns and twists arise with each revealed clue. Today's military is different than how Hank knew it, but then again, the stakes are higher as the top brass finds itself grappling with heady issues thrown to the forefront when soldiers view killing as an ordinary, every day act. We ask young 18-year olds to kill a vicious enemy, but don't understand when they're ill-prepared emotionally when asked to assimilate into society.
Hank's lifelong convictions, ingrained by his military service, are put to a serious challenge and his pain is reflected in every wrinkle on Jones' face. We get the feeling that a good man-cry would really do him some good, but in Hank's army, men don't cry… they mask their feelings behind a steely façade and deflective demeanor. Jones nails his performance by giving a turn that's sure to be mentioned come Oscar time. Great actors can reveal with the eyes, every drop of what their character is feeling. Jones' Hank conveys truckloads of emotion without so much as a smile or frown.
Susan Sarandon's performance needs mentioning as well. As Hank's wife and Mike's mother, her Joan believes Mike felt compelled to enlist only so as to not disappoint his father. And she never lets Hank forget this. Losing both sons to war might mean the reduction to a bawling heap of grief to most mothers, but Joan shows pain through her strength, resolve and insistence. Sarandon never panders to cheap feelings and as a result, she's totally believable. She feels like what we think a real military wife and mother would be.
Haggis asks plenty of tough questions and makes several solid points, but we never feel manipulated or used. His writing is always better than that, and it's certainly the case here. Much like in his more effective Crash, we're asked to face uncomfortable situations and watch brutal realities play themselves out. We'll all react differently to the subject matter, but regardless of which side of the political fence one sits on, In the Valley of Elah's power can't be denied and the strong acting must be appreciated.
(Released by Warner Bros. Pictures and rated “R” for violent and disturbing content, language and some sexuality/nudity.)
Review also posted at www.franksreelreviews.com.