Monday, 1 October 2007
IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH
In the Valley of Elah (2007) dir. Paul Haggis
Starring: Tommy Lee Jones, Charlize Theron, Susan Sarandon
Paul Haggis tackles the popular and topical subject of the Iraq War. “In the Valley of Elah” focuses on the psychological effect of the War on the returning soldiers. It’s an important film, and Haggis chooses to tell the story through the device of an investigative drama. Imagine “A Few Good Men” with a message. Haggis proves again he has top notch skills with familiar stories and relays his message with maximum emotional impact.
The film opens with Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones) on the phone with the military base his son Mike has returned to after a tour in Iraq. But after one day, Mike has gone AWOL. Hank immediately leaves his wife (Susan Sarandon) at home and travels two days by car to the Tennessee town to find his son. Neither the military police nor the civilian police are doing enough to find his son, so, Hank, a former military man himself, conducts his own personal investigation.
Without spoiling the details (and believe me the less you know the better), I can say the film moves along like a traditional investigative story. Jones quickly reverts to his military habits, and is single-minded and relentless in his search. His actions perturb both the military police and the city police. But he does manage to wrangle the help of a new police detective Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron). Even Emily is skeptical about Hank’s involvement, but she quickly learns his determination is matched by his acuteness and attention to detail. Hank makes a series of discoveries which break the case and help solve the mystery. But the mystery is just the start of the journey for Hank, as he discovers faults in himself which has contributed to the heartbreaking events.
The strength of the film is Haggis’ characters. Tommy Lee Jones is terrific as Hank. Rarely does Hank waver from his poker-faced exterior demeanor, but with just a glance from his weathered face Jones manages to express a range of emotions from rage to sadness to fear. Haggis isn’t always subtle with the message he wants to tell us, but in this film he tells us the message through Hank’s actions as opposed to dialogue. Hank loves the military and places all his faith in its organization, camaraderie and discipline. As such he conducts his investigation as he did back when he was an officer. But by the end watch how Jones’ has been changed by the events in the film. Haggis hits the nail bluntly on our heads with the final scene, but watch the effect on Jones’ character for the subtle changes. His performance is Oscar-worthy.
Charlize Theron is also very good – if miscast slightly. She is a terrific actress, and she appropriately dresses down for her role as a female cop who faces the daily sexism of small town redneck America with confidence, but it’s still hard to get passed her stunning beauty.
Since the film is a procedural investigative film the beats of the story are very predictable. Towards the end of the second act I was waiting for that unintentional discovery of information that sends the story in another direction. Indeed my instincts were right and we did get that moment, but Haggis smartly keeps the tone consistent and doesn’t over-dramatize the turn. The reveals moves the story along but they don’t overpower the characters. Haggis always knows the film is about Hank Deerfield – not the investigation.
Haggis also is spot on with the setting and environment. In the small town in Tennessee where the city is dominated by U.S. flags on lawns, there’s a blanket of somberness despite the community pride. The city feels like an abandoned desolate ghost town – like a failed American dream. There’s another story to be told about the economic effect of globalism on the town and the selling of Bush’s war to these desperate communities. Haggis says nothing explicit about this to us, but it’s there simmering underneath the film. In fact, my wife and I were in Buffalo, NY this weekend, and in certain parts of that city we felt much the same feeling. Haggis gets it right.
“In the Valley of Elah” is a serious and somber film about American military in the Middle East. The film looks even better film when placed beside Peter Berg’s irresponsible action/political film, “The Kingdom”, which feels more like a propaganda video than a realistic film. “Elah” is a film the American military definitely doesn’t want you to see. Please go and see it. Enjoy.