Before I begin, let me set the record straight on my feelings toward Crash and Paul Haggis, the director of In the Valley of Elah, who has been a regular whipping boy on this site for the last couple of years. See, there were two Crashs: There was the moderately popular Crash — a ponderous, kind of dumb film, slightly offensive in its simplification of race relations in America, but as a piece of throwaway entertainment, certainly not the worst movie in the world, just another film like Breach or 16 Blocks that no one remembers a year after it leaves the theaters. And then there was Crash, the Oscar Winner for Best Picture — a schlocky, cretinous ham-fisted pseudo-profound film that violently curbed its message into a viewer’s jawbone like he’d hit on Tony Soprano’s daughter.
It’s easy to dismiss a director who attains modest box-office success and the right to make another, hopefully better, film. However, when that subpar effort is not only lumped into the same category as four infinitely superior movies, but is then declared the best, you begin to see why we’ve developed an unhealthy sense of hatred toward the man. On the spectrum of achievements and just desserts, Haggis lands so far off the charts that not even Phil Keoghan would await his return. It’s tantamount to Jimmy Kimmell — a reasonably affable, somewhat offensive talk-show host with the IQ of a dirty jockstrap — not only being nominated for a late-night talk show Emmy, but beating out the likes of Conan O’Brien (Capote), Stephen Colbert (Good Night, and Good Luck, David Letterman (Munich), and Jon Stewart (Brokeback Mountain). It’s untenable, and for those in the business of judging the qualitative merits of film, seeing a criminally undeserving Haggis win an Oscar for Crash rightly inspired some borderline homicidal resentment in many of us. (That said, there was only one The Last Kiss, and it was incorrigibly unwatchable.)
In the Valley of Elah is a similarly ponderous, slow-moving Haggisian effort that may even be modestly better than Crash. In fact, I even reluctantly admire the courage it must have taken for Haggis to direct this film. To be sure, there’s nothing new about the themes of Elah — the dehumanizing effects of combat, the way killing can rob you of your soul, and the difficulties of transitioning from solider to civilian life — but as far as I know, Haggis is the first non-documentarian to transpose them into the context of the current war, and he was even brave enough (or stupid enough) to do it while the war was ongoing. Indeed, depending on just how literally you interpret “inspired by true events” — whether the soldiers depicted were based on actual people or meant to be stand-ins for a larger segment of the military population — you might even find Elah mildly uncomfortable to watch, in the way that learning truths you don’t want to learn can be uncomfortable. Others may simply find the movie aggressively unpatriotic in the way it questions the Iraq war effort and characterizes soldiers after they come home, though I came away with the impression — given the toll that battle takes on the human condition — that it was questioning the value of any war, though perhaps especially one fought to “bring democracy to a shithole.”
I just find it a shame that, given the intended complexities of Elah, Haggis was given the right to adapt the story for the screen and direct it. Because, in more capable hands (I understand that Fred Savage is directing films these days), In the Valley of the Elah might have deserved the accolades and award nominations it will inevitably receive. It is, at times, a powerful film; unfortunately, much of the power comes by way of cheap manipulation and overwrought, in-your-face symbolism. A man with any sense of nuance whatsoever might have been able to create, with Mark Boal’s source material (a piece originally published in Playboy), the definitive movie of this war. As it stands, Haggis has created another more-or-less forgettable film that the Academy is likely to fall all over itself praising.
But, there is nothing forgettable about Tommy Lee Jones’ performance in Elah — it may be the best I’ve seen since Ryan Gosling in Half Nelson or Heath Ledger in Brokeback, a simmering, mournful performance that clings to you like melancholy cologne long after you leave the theater. Jones has always been reliably capable of playing his typical Jonesian cowboy: Full of piss and vinegar, a cocksure shitkicker with or without a gun. But as Hank Deerfield, he turns that bluster and bravado inwards — that same arrogant machismo is an agonizing weakness. He recognizes it as such when he realizes that it’s more or less responsible for the death of his two sons: The first 10 years before in a military helicopter accident, and the second (the subject of this movie) a peach-fuzzed kid (Jonathan Tucker) sent off to fight in Iraq, only to turn up missing, then dead, a week after returning to his base in New Mexico.
Deerfield, a former military policeman, travels from his home in Tennessee to New Mexico overnight (not before pulling over to instruct an El Salvadorian on flag-flying etiquette) to investigate his son’s disappearance. When his son’s body is found burned and in pieces, Elah quickly becomes an old-fashioned genre film — a police procedural, only the lead crime scene investigator, detective, and pathologist is a grieving father. Deerfield pieces together clues from the crime scene, from questioning witnesses, and from videos from Iraq that he discovers on his son’s phone. As one might expect, his son’s time in Iraq plays into his homicide.
He’s aided in this effort by Det. Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron). Theron does an admirable job with what she has to work with, but her character’s involvement in the story is a clear and extraneous nod to conventions of the genre, and her plotline, unfortunately, is where Haggis dumps all his ham-handedness. She’s there so that Haggis can introduce the jurisdictional pissing match between the cops and the military, who seem to be hiding something; so that he can follow the tale of the rookie lady cop who slept her way to a promotion to its logical conclusion; and so he can shoehorn a single-mom who has a kid that likes bedtime stories all into one character (and the title, which comes from a bedtime story Deerfield tells Sanders’ son about David and Goliath, has absolutely nothing to do with anything else in the film, there being no legitimately metaphorical Davids or Goliaths anywhere in the narrative). Additionally, the plot strand involving the dog-abusing husband is particularly preposterous, completely unnecessary, and distracts from the overall message in Elah — but it does allow Haggis to develop a scene so heavy-handed that you can hear knuckles burst from violently dragging on the ground.
But, while In the Valley of Elah begins as a movie about a father investigating his son’s death, it evolves slowly (but not quietly, thanks to Haggis) into a movie about the broader implications of war, ultimately hitting where it hurts the most: The disillusionment of families who have lost sons and daughters in the conflict, seemingly stripping from them the one notion they could cling to — that their loved ones fought and died for a worthy cause. And it could’ve been a great film, if only Haggis had not learned lessons in subtlety from colicky newborns. As it is, however, Elah is a mediocre movie with a strong message and perhaps the best performance by a lead actor you will see all year. And that alone, actually, is reason enough to see it.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. He lives with his wife and son in Ithaca, New York. You may email him, or leave a comment below.
In the Valley of Elah / Dustin Rowles
Film Reviews | September 21, 2007 | Comments ()