Friday, September 14, 2007

"In the Valley of Elah" -- * * 1/2

"In the Valley of Elah" is exactly the kind of movie every outraged American has been waiting for: one featuring major Hollywood stars that directly addresses and concentrates on the debacle in Iraq and the catastrophic effects it's had on both our troops and those back home. Unfortunately, it's written and directed by Paul Haggis, Academy Award-winning creator of "Crash," the film that dared to say racism is bad, and say it over and over and over and over again. As such, "Elah" is certainly an important movie, I just wish it was a good one.

The film opens with the scratchy audio of someone (we won't find out who till the film's conclusion) yelling "Mike, get back in the fucking vehicle!" as the title comes up, followed quickly by "inspired by actual events." Even though the last third of the story was altered singificantly for the film, it's inspired by real events, so it must be important. As the film opens, Tennessee residents Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones), a former Marine, and his wife Joan (Susan Sarandon), find out their enlisted son, Mike (Jonathan Tucker), has returned home from his tour of duty in Iraq and immediately gone AWOL. Feeling something's wrong, Hank drives to Fort Rudd in New Mexico, where he talks with some of his son's platoon buddies, who call Mike "Doc." Though they all assume Mike must be holed up in a hotel room somewhere with a beautiful girl, Hank has doubts.

These doubts are confirmed when (at around the film's 20-25 minute mark) Mike's body parts are found strewn across a field. When Hank is informed that his son was stabbed 42 times, dismembered, and then burned, he fights through his devastation and attempts to find justice for his son by finding out who murdered him, with the help of Det. Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron), who Hank convinces to join him, despite the body not being found under her department's jurisdiction. Though the film begins as a murder mystery, by its final third, it's evolved almost completely into an indictment of our foreign policy's unintended effects on our soldiers.

As pretty much anyone who has ever spoken to me knows, I am no fan of "Crash." With "Elah," Haggis has taken a massive leap forward in his writing; there's no question this is a better film. However, the problems here are the same as with "Crash," just not on as grand a scale. Haggis still feels the need to underline every single point multiple times, and just in case we still don't get it, have a character-- with little regard to rationality or realism-- speak it aloud. Here, we get lines like "We shouldn't send heroes to places like Iraq," as opposed to "Sometimes I think we crash into each other just so we can feel something."

But the greatest sin Haggis commits here-- particularly when dealing with a subject like Iraq-- is gross oversimplication of complex issues. The filmmaker takes an interesting direction, and doesn't focus explicitly on the political or moral implications of the occupation. Instead, he goes for the emotional approach, specifically focusing on the results for soldiers once they come home. It's a worthy direction to take-- and probably the one most likely to have an effect on average Joe American-- but even in this respect, Haggis's complete and utter lack of subtlety dulls his intended points. "Elah" paints literally every soldier that returns home as a murderer, or at least a sociopath. Basically, there's something in the air in Iraq that will make you drown your wife and dog.

It was a grand disappointment to me that Haggis so profoundly blunders in this respect, since so many aspects of the movie do work. As a deeply sad meditation on the relationships between fathers and sons, the movie resonates. On the same token, only the most hardened viewer will be unaffected by scenes depicting Hank and Joan dealing with the loss of their son. Haggis has numerous problems as a screenwriter, but sentimentality isn't one of them. The man is a virtual master of restraint in this respect, managing to make scenes of extreme emotion wrenching without ever going over the top or wringing unearned tears out of audience members.

Also, speaking just politically, Haggis's heart is in the right place, and "Elah" does say all the right things, it just doesn't always deliver them in the best way. The director and I are relatively aligned politically (he's a well-publicized Kucinich supporter), and I wholeheartedly agree with the general viewpoints the film puts out there. The film's final image in particular is bold in its own way, and powerfully divisive-- its impact is only diminished by its obvious foreshadowing in an earlier ridiculous scene.

Tommy Lee Jones is known throughout the industry as a hardened, cranky asshole, and that generally comes across in his on-screen persona that he seems to play variations of over and over again. Despite Hank being another version of that persona, Jones is simply fantastic here. He shows restraint in never giving Hank a big breakdown moment, but still getting across his increasing sadness/disappointment about the state of his country.

The scene where Hank learns his son is dead is a mastery of acting; you can see him fighting back any emotion attempting to take him over while he asks in an unwavering staid tone about found fingerprints, and it's more devastating than any screaming and collapsing could have been. As Hank evolves from blindly ethnocentric patriot ("My son spent the last 18 months bringing Democracy to a shithole and serving his country-- he deserves better than this!") into disillusioned, heartbroken veteran, this performance only gets richer as the movie goes on.

Theron is fine, though never more than competent. Haggis attempts to give Emily further depth by making her a single mom and prejudiced against at work (where she's, of course, the only woman), but the role never really comes together in any substantial way; this really isn't her story. She'll sit out this award season, and have to settle for just being in an "important" movie.

Sarandon is in a handful of scenes, and two of them that are particularly powerful stand out, but at about the 30-minute mark, the script forgets she exists and she inexplicably disappears for the rest of the movie. While she's on screen, she's devastatingly gripping, but by the film's end, most viewers will forget she was even in it.

Josh Brolin and Jason Patric put in supporting work as, respectively, Theron's superior and the lead investigator on Mike's murder. Disappointingly, neither gets a ton to do-- both characters are functional only as authority figures, and are never particularly defined.

Technically, the film's a bit of a mixed bag. The washed-out cinematography by Roger Deakins is gorgeous, and the film is well-shot-- Haggis' direction was never a problem-- though the score is noticably low rent, like a made-for-TV movie.

Much like the blanks in "Crash" that "shot" Michael Pena's cute little girl in the most manipulative scene of the last decade, "In the Valley of Elah" has no less than three devices that deny certain information from us so they can be revealed at the time of maximum impact in the story: (a) murky video clips from Mike's cell-phone slowly dished out to us and Hank as they suit the story's needs at those moments, (b) an unopened package Mike sent home before his murder, and (c) the nature of a phone call from Mike we hear snippets of throughout the movie. Without spoiling how any of these strands concludes, I will say the first is the most manipulative of the three, and once we see the videos, one questions why anybody would actually videotape said activities-- unless of course, they knew one day they would be providing helpful story beats for a Paul Haggis film.

It's still remarkably early in the season, and I'm not terribly happy about it, but I have a gut feeling that, unless it flops at the box office (which is very possible), "Elah" is going to be a major player at next year's Academy Awards. It's emotional, it's easy to follow, it's jam-packed with former Oscar winners, it has an air of "importance" surrounding it, and it's exactly the kind of film Academy members and (liberal) audiences have a tendency to eat up with a spoon.

However, I can't decide whether the film's pretentious, metaphorical title deserves admiration for its thoughtful ambiguity or condemnation for its indecipherability. According to the Bible, the valley of Elah is the area between the Phillistines and the Israelites, where David slew Goliath. Are our soldiers David, sent out by a cowardly leader to face a giant with just a handful of stones? Or are they Goliath, expecting an easy victory and blindsided by the little guy's strength and determination?

"In the Valley of Elah" is, despite its many problems, an admirable movie that really needed to be made, but perhaps not by someone not so prone to didacticism and oversimplification. There's a lot of good here, and the best of intentions-- and for some, that just might be enough. I feel enough folks are clamoring for a movie talking about these issues, that a not-that-great one might satiate their appetite. It's a missed opportunity, but one that at least offers some genuinely powerful moments and a great performance.

"In the Valley of Elah" opens today in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Washington DC, Boston and Chicago, and nationwide September 21st.

OSCAR POTENTIAL: Best Picture, Best Director (Paul Haggis), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actor (Tommy Lee Jones), Best Supporting Actress (Susan Sarandon), Best Editing


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