Sunday, April 4, 2010

Archive: "In The Valley Of Elah" (2007)

Paul Haggis certainly doesn't work on bad movies. He wrote the Best Picture winner "Million Dollar Baby" and co-wrote the Best Picture nominee "Letters from Iwo Jima." Most of all, he wrote and directed 2005's Best Picture winner "Crash." Now he's back as the writer and director of "In the Valley of Elah," a meditative observation on one of the most controversial issues of our time: the war in Iraq. The movie's title comes from the story of how David kills Goliath the giant with a well-placed stone between the eyes in the Valley of Elah. The child hearing the story asks if the young boy was scared facing such a monster like that; the monster being alluded to here is war. But I'm sure it also can be taken in numerous ways. This unsettling metaphor of America today defines the core of this essential and truly important movie.

At a glance, the movie could be viewed as a simple stateside murder mystery, but of course it builds into much more than that. Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones) is a retired military sergeant who hauls gravel for a living. One night as he is sitting in his Tennessee home, he receives a call about his son, Mike, who recently returned home from Iraq but has gone missing. With hardly a word to his wife, Joan (Susan Sarandon), Hank packs up and heads to Fort Rudd in New Mexico to shed more light on the issue. Once at the base, however, none of Mike's buddies know anything about him or where he is; neither they nor any officers are willing to answer any of Hank's questions. He searches Mike's room and while pretending to take a Bible from his drawer, he swipes a cell phone that is fried from the heat in Iraq. The videos taken on there are salvaged by a local street hacker, however, and he sends them along one by one. They each provide haunting insight into what goes on over there; it's a glimpse into a world of bizarre chaos and destruction.

Shortly after checking into a cheap motel and taking a look around the local area, Hank soon learns the painful truth about his son. He is taken to a spot by the side of a dirt road right outside the base where charred pieces of a body are scattered; these remains are identified as what's left of Hank's son. The videos taken by Mike are now used by Hank as any clue to why he might've been murdered, along with other clues leading to plenty of visits to topless bars and a chicken shack. The Army investigators want to sweep the crime scene under the rug because it'll make them look bad; the local cops, meanwhile, are apathetic because the terms of whose jurisdiction the investigation is under are too muddy. Hank does receive help from Detective Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron), however reluctant she may be. Hank attempts to head the investigation himself and gets aggravated at the carelessness of Sanders' colleagues. His veteran sleuthing is driven by a broken father's rage and pain, and it carries a heavy resonance.

To explain the rest of this police procedural would be ruining the movie's persistently engaging tension. It would also suggest the fact that the movie is no more than a conventional crime thriller, which is not at all the case. The screenplay intelligently and excellently sidesteps that by not having all of the characters heightened as they would be in any other police thriller. Emily Sanders isn't necessarily working for or against Hank Deerfield. She is merely a woman doing her job to the very best of her ability. She isn't sexy, she doesn't have any attraction with anyone, she ignores the abuse at work, and she cares for her son at home. Hank isn't any sort of hero and isn't trying to be. He's simply trying to understand war and why it has ruined two of his sons. Then there's his wife, Joan, who is a mother rightfully crushed but not overly manic. There's a scene where Hank reveals the troubling news about her son to her over the phone, and she reacts with such despair and sadness that is gut-wrenching in its realism.

"In the Valley of Elah" works so well because of an affectionately realized performance by Tommy Lee Jones along with the tone he creates, which permeates throughout the entire film. His face is constantly solemn and contemplating. The lines under his eyes show a man who is constantly concerned and under pressure. And when he talks, there is an authority in his voice that demands he be listened to and understood. This is one of the best performances of his career because it's a role with knowledgeable experience behind it. Charlize Theron also gives a deserving performance as a woman who is in constant struggle with herself in the course of trying to help somebody else. And then there's Susan Sarandon who packs in heartfelt emotion in the brevity of her scenes with her pools of welling tears for eyes.

There's a lot going on underneath the movie's deceptively quiet surface in terms of trying to understand the consequences of the war in Iraq. None of it is too heavy-handed, and nothing here flat-out states that there is opposition to the war. Anybody who says that the movie is blatantly anti-war really wasn't watching close enough. The war in Iraq isn't so much immediately used an idea, but more so just as a setting because the majority of the movie involves the search for Hank's son. It's through that setting in which the theme about the war is brought about, and that is the beauty of the film's construction. There's definitely something to be about war transforming our soldiers and sucking the humanity out of them, and how that reflects upon us as a nation.

Is "In the Valley of Elah" in the running for being a Best Picture nominee? In a word, maybe. It depends on whether or not this is the type of film the Academy is looking for, and it also depends on what else there is out later this year. I wouldn't mind seeing it on the list because it is an entirely worthy one. It seems that whenever Paul Haggis makes a film, he has something to say, and the question is whether or not the Academy is ready to award a powerfully impactive film such as this; however, they did do it for "Crash," which addressed the tension amongst racist stereotyping. "In the Valley of Elah" is a movie that becomes entirely essential. It tackles a real subject that truly means something and approaches it with good taste along with shrewd and sorrowful storytelling as it questions, observes, and heals.

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