Writer/director Paul Haggis won the Best Picture Oscar for Crash, an exploration of race relations in L.A. His next project, In the Valley of Elah, explores the psychological cost of war to soldiers.
R for violent, disturbing content, nudity
Tommy Lee Jones plays Hank, a Vietnam vet who may or may not have seen action as an M.P. His son Mike, back from a tour in Iraq, has gone AWOL, so Hank drives to Fort Rudd to try to put things right. While Hank is looking into Mike’s disappearance, Mike’s body is discovered, hacked and burned, in a field.
Hank sticks around, hounding both the local police detective, Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron), and the Army’s investigators, trying to help them piece together the motive behind his son’s murder. Along the way, he learns more about Mike’s experience in Iraq.
Susan Sarandon is underused as Mike’s mother; this really is Tommy Lee Jones’ movie. Other critics have strongly praised his performance; to me it seems too easy. Jones has often played gruff ex-military types; it seems to suit him. Although he’s perfect for the role, I’m not sure that makes his performance outstanding. He does convey grim sadness; when he finally laughs two-thirds of the way through the movie, it’s a strange reminder of just how serious he’s been.
I’m more impressed with the work of Charlize Theron. After proving herself as a glamorous starlet in, for example, The Italian Job, she has disappeared into some really interesting roles, notably Monster and North Country. Here, she plays another blue-collar worker, a timid junior police detective in a department full of macho good-old-boys.
Soldier vs. Soldier
The film’s title refers to the place where David slew Goliath. But the film’s message isn’t the usual, shallow metaphor of the little guy with heart beating the odds. Well, it’s that, too. Hank sets the scene for Emily’s young son. Two armies face each other across a divide, but the real story is about an individual soldier from each army facing off. He tells of Goliath’s edge — he’s a terrible, fearsome giant with the momentum of a Humvee convoy. But despite his might, Goliath is only human. David’s position is hopeless 9 times out of 10, but he does the only thing he can under the circumstances: plants his feet, swallows his fear, and keeps his head.
In the Valley of Elah is about what we ask soldiers to do. We ask a lot in times of war, and that’s bad enough. But then we ask them to come back home and live “normal” lives, and sometimes that’s too much.
The best film to explore this subject is The Best Years of Our Lives, made shortly after the end of World War II. Vietnam had its Coming Home and Born on the Fourth of July, and even the documentary Hearts and Minds.
In the Valley of Elah is a somewhat respectable entry on that distinguished list. It’s weakened somewhat by Hank’s position as a veteran. He seems too surprised, maybe even naively so, at how bad things are for his son and his friends. There’s the slightest implication that things are worse now than in past wars. But these other great films belie that notion. Then again, maybe as an MP, Hank never faced a Viet Cong from across the valley.
Like Crash, In the Valley of Elah is a well-made issue movie. In the same way, it is a little heavy. It’s not that the film is preachy, nor does it use the war in Iraq to make a political statement — but the movie is very dense and rigorous. The plot takes the form of an investigation, which means that are questions and answers . There are rules and procedures which produce results and lead to closure. A quieter, airier, and more open-ended story would have probably fit the themes better.