In the Valley of Elah ***1/2
Directed by Paul Haggis
Written by Paul Haggis
Tommy Lee Jones as Hank Deerfield
Charlize Theron as Det. Emily Sanders
Jason Patric as Lt. Kirklander
Susan Sarandon as Joan Deerfield
James Franco as Sgt. Dan Carnelli
Barry Corbin as Arnold Bickman
Josh Brolin as Chief Buchwald
Frances Fisher as Evie
121 Minutes(Rated R for violent and disturbing content, language and some sexuality/nudity. )
Those of you who are familiar with the scripts and films of Paul Haggis know that subtly is not the name of his game. When he has an idea or a motif that he wants to use, he practically throws it down your throat for you to know. He did it in "Million Dollar Baby." He did it a lot in "Crash." And he's doing it here with "In the Valley of Elah." But what's my point? Well, even though he isn't very subtle in his methods, all three of those films managed to be quite powerful and very moving. "Crash" actually made me cry and few times in there, something very hard to do, and I even named it the best movie of 2005. "In the Valley of Elah" won't make it to the shortlist, but it is extremely well acted and very powerful, even though Haggis' anti-war message practically punches you in the face, especially the final shot.
Tommy Lee Jones becomes two for two-his other great performance being in "No Country for Old Men" which is coming out in November for you all to see-I've seen it and you could see how if you click here. He plays Hank Deerfield, who wakes up one November morning to learn that his son, who was stationed in Iraq and was supposed to be on his way home, has vanished. He goes to the army base to see what is up, and is shocked to find his son's body has already been found, right on the Mexican border, in pieces. With the help of Det. Emily Sanders, played by Charlize Theron, he tries to find out what happened to his son-using the video clips that his son recorded on his cell phone, the witnesses of the other soldiers that knew his son, and his own instinct as a former detective as his guide.
Haggis clearly saw a whole bunch of different routes that he could go through with this plot. This is not only a mystery story about what happened to Hank's son. There are several different angles that you could go through. On one level, yes, it is a detective mystery. On another level there is a father and son story, told from several different angles. The first is a father doing whatever he can to find out what happened to his boy. As the movie goes on you see that Hank was never the best father-maybe a little bit too hard on his son to go fight and take up after his father-and maybe Hank is trying to avenge his son, or at least prove to both himself and his son that he did love him very much. And then there is my favorite angle-at least the one I found the most interesting-where Hank is learning things about his son that he wished he didn't know. His son is dead, but the ones that knew him can say what he really did, and Hank learns all about things his son did alone-drugs, various woman, etc, that maybe he wouldn't be proud of. This could change the view that he has about his son from the start, and I found this an interesting angle that Haggis touched upon, but I wished looked into more.
Tommy Lee Jones gives a silently powerful performance, and I hope he gets a nomination for sure. His scenes with Charlize Theron are almost amazing to watch, and Theron is the rare Oscar winner that keeps delivering after the big win. The win was clearly not a fluke. They are really the central actors here, even though there is a rather star studded supporting cast that barely reach ten minutes of screen time, including a barely cameo appearance by Susan Sarandon as Hank's wife, who manages to be better in those ten minutes than some actors were in starring roles this year. Haggis' script gives quite the anti-war message, and if you managed to miss it at all-which I'm sure you won't-the final shot will explain everything. And even though Haggis may not come up with the best ways of being hidden about what he is trying to say-literally watching some of his scenes are worst than a first grade class-he is still a good storyteller, a decent director, and always assembles great performances by his casts. "In the Valley of Elah" is a very moving and powerful film, albeit a depressing one, but well worth taking the journey.