16 December 2007

In the Valley of Elah

Our country is in peril and we can’t do anything to save ourselves. With one last bold stroke, Paul Haggis cements this bleak political commentary at the end of his new film “In the Valley of Elah.” Unfortunately, this moment is unnecessary, as any discerning viewer could have picked the idea up along the way.
Such obvious gimmicks are characteristic of Haggis, and his Oscar-winning film “Crash”, in the opinion of many, suffered under the weight of them. Luckily, this movie has fewer of them. Overall, it is more subtle, mature, and intelligent than its predecessor. This makes the presence of such general statements even more of a nuisance, and they might even keep it from being a great film.
That aside, there is much to admire here. The cinematography is more thoughtful and less staged. Whereas “Crash” jumped through locations and scenes rather quickly, in this film shots linger longer; some of the moments of silence seem to carry more weight than any of the dialogue. And because there is one central storyline, there is much to be said for the strength provided by such narrative focus.
That storyline centers on Hank Deerfield, played by Tommy Lee Jones, whose son Mike has apparently returned from a tour of duty in Iraq and has now disappeared. Hank, a former military police officer, travels to the base and begins his own investigation with the help of local detective Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron). What he finds is unnerving, and unfortunately gets manipulated into one of Haggis’s political statements.
Without any exploitation, the central secret that Deerfield uncovers is horrifying enough, and raises questions on its own that Haggis doesn’t really need to answer explicitly, mainly because we know the answers already. What happens when violence becomes second nature to a person? How does war affect a person’s psyche? These have been answered in other films before, but rarely so chillingly and so quietly as in some of the scenes here.
I’ve mentioned the silence of this film, and one of the best examples is Tommy Lee Jones’s performance. In a film where the director at times over-exerts himself, it’s refreshing to see an actor who is able to do so much with seemingly little effort. He is portraying a man who has lost his son, and he plays it just as a military man like Hank would, devoid of overdramatic wailing and weeping.
As previously mentioned, the political commentary comes in sparse but concentrated bursts, which to some might carry a lot of power. I suppose we could be thankful that there weren’t more politics. To Haggis’s credit, he doesn’t get wrapped up in being preachy regarding the current administration as most Hollywood people like to do these days. Rather than pervading the film, the political atmosphere lingers overhead. It’s always there if you want to find it.
Overall, it’s a conflicted film. Much of it is of high quality, even moving at times. Yet those punctuated moments, for me at least, brought it down. The last shot of the film is the heaviest one. It’s a bit hard to stomach such despair, particularly when coupled with the fear that it might be true.

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