Monday, September 10, 2007
Down in the Valley
Writer-director Paul Haggis, whose Crash magically solved the racial problems of Los Angeles, says a-ten-hut to the Iraq War with In the Valley of Elah, which Warner Independent Pictures opens Sept. 14. Starting with that portent-filled Old Testament title, the results fall predictably wide of the mark and short of the goal. Like Stanley Kramer, who turned out dutiful, lesson-filled pictures like Guess Who's Coming to Dinner and Bless the Beasts & Children, Haggis confuses good intentions with good filmmaking. A few days before it opens, you can already hear Elah creaking.
Then again, I'm not hoping for much from the dozen or so Iraq/Afghanistan/9-11 pictures due to open in the next few months. On the one hand, it's better to get them now, rather than ten years after the conflict ends. On the other, most of them seem to be crafted from the same scratchy wool, stories suffused with righteous anger and bouts of "how did this happen to us?" soul-searching. I can only see Brian De Palma's controversial Redacted, a formally inventive reworking of his powerful Casualties of War, and Mike Nichols' less strait-jacketed Charlie Wilson's War, getting under the skin. The rest will simply get under the collar, to itch and irritate. Awards nominators will swoon for the middlebrow achievement, indifferent critics and audiences will mostly shrug, and the war will go on.
With numerous documentaries already released, Elah opens this new campaign in features (last winter's marginally better Home of the Brave proved a false start). The good news here is that Haggis has curbed the flashy excesses of the Oscar-winning Crash; the bad news is, In the Valley of Elah is so sluggish, so mindful of its own importance, that it is practically sedated. And no one remembered to wake up its star, Tommy Lee Jones. Though I'd hesitate to tell him this to his face, he's not really as iconic as his weathered saddletramp looks suggest (not as much as, say, Clint Eastwood, who allegedly turned the part down), and is a drag to be with as he enters our contemporary heart of darkness.
In the fact-adapted film, Jones is Hank Deerfield, a former military policeman who begins an investigation that hits home when his son, Mike (Jonathan Tucker), mysteriously goes AWOL on his first weekend Stateside, following the end to a wearying tour of duty in Iraq. Hank soon finds himself up against a wall of military officialdom, who would rather he just return home and let them close the book on his son's disappearance. But his discovery of Mike's anguished video journals harden his resolve. Watching his back in the dry-as-sawdust military town where Mike was last seen is a local police detective, Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron), whose fellow officers are slightly contemptuous of her capabilities.
Emily's battles with a tough-as-brass Josh Brolin, which come down to sexism, seem to have come in from another movie altogether, maybe Theron's last Oscar-baiting credit, North Country. Her total about-face in Monster was a complete transformation but the half-measures here to deglam her (downmarket hairstyle and makeup) make her stand out all the more. (She at least has more to do than Susan Sarandon, who, playing Hank's wife, cries and looks haggard in a handful of scenes.) Furthermore, she has been given a sickly son, to whom Jones relates the story of David and Goliath in the valley of Elah. Lest we misunderstand the story of the brave warrior going alone against the might of the giant and the Philistines, it is repeated twice more in the film, I presume for secular slowpokes in the audience and to imprint the title in all our heathen heads.
The main story is unfortunately pedestrian. With little variation in intensity or urgency, Jones and Theron pursue a lead to a bar or barracks, question him or her, then move on to the next person of inquiry. Some of these are Mike's brothers in arms, played by actual Iraq combat veterans, who give the film some authenticity. Lacking same is Jones. He relies on his weary ruggedness to tell the story of a nation's shame for us, but is otherwise incommunicado. That may work in a cowboy picture or thriller; his mere presence alone, however, isn't strong enough to shoulder everything Haggis (and the Bush administration) have burdened him with. Nothing seems to penetrate his mask-like somnolence, not even the revelation of Mike's tragedy--which seems to imply, as Vietnam-era movies like Jones' Rolling Thunder did, that an army of war-forged potential psychopaths is heading our way from the desert and we will soon reap what we have sown. That's a little rich, I think--is there supporting evidence beyond the story the film is based on?--and needlessly fear-mongering. Haggis plays at John Ford with his stoic compositions but a certain paranoia bleeds from the frame.
And he hasn't left all his old tricks behind. Early in the film, Hank corrects a Hispanic handyman who has raised an American flag upside down outside a school. That, he says, means a nation in distress. He corrects the error (which is not meant to be condescending but given Haggis' last film comes off as such). At that point I guessed, exactly, how the film would end, and its final, meant-to-be-shattering image. And I was right. If you can intuit it as well, then I suggest passing by this Valley.