I had decided that I needed to unwind with a nice quiet movie night at home. With no particular film in mind, I made my way down to the video store and wandered through the new releases section. It has been a slow couple of weeks for DVD releases so I wasn’t expecting much. As I slipped past the hearty portion of the alphabet, my memory was jogged when I came upon a film that had sunk beneath my radar. Paul Haggis is a brilliant filmmaker whose works have been best known for asking the hard and uncomfortable questions that most filmmakers are afraid to ask. With such titles as Crash, Letters from Iwo Jima, Flags of Our Fathers, and Million Dollar Baby, he has made his mark as a revolutionary director and writer. His newest award winner, however, is the one that has the honor of my review, In The Valley of Elah.
It is easy to say that without the staggering performance of Tommy Lee Jones, this film would have very little holding it together. He plays Hank Deerfield, the dour father, husband and career military man who receives a phone call late one night alerting him to the truth that his son has gone AWOL shortly after his return from Iraq. Not satisfied with the idea that his son would bail on his unit and country, Hank gathers up his living essentials and begins his own investigation into his son’s disappearance.
Finding the local police department very ill-equipped to handle a missing persons case, Hank is forced to use his MP training to solve the case of his absent son. He’s aided by his only reliable contact within the police department, Detective Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron), a single mother facing sexism from her co-workers. Based on a true story, but with lots of fictional elements added for effect, In the Valley of Elah, turns into a gripping police procedural that has plenty to say about what war can do to people. Haggis uses the film’s title, which refers to the location of David’s heroic Biblical battle with Goliath, to great effect, mixing in many layers of subjective meaning and illustrative metaphors. It’s what Haggis does best, and here he doesn’t disappoint.
I have learned that Haggis is all about subliminal threading and creative imagery, but In the Valley of Elah works best as just a simple murder mystery. Hank and Sanders go up against evasive witnesses, military stonewalling and bumbling police work by the small town dicks. But interesting turns and twists arise with each revealed clue. Today’s military is different than how Hank knew it, but then again, the stakes are higher as the top brass finds itself grappling with heavy issues thrown to the forefront when soldiers view killing as an ordinary, every day act. We ask young 18-year olds to kill a vicious enemy, but don’t understand when they’re ill-prepared emotionally when asked to assimilate into society.
Hank’s lifelong convictions, ingrained by his military service, are put to a serious challenge and his pain is reflected in every wrinkle on Jones’ face. We get the feeling that a good man-cry would really do him some good, but in Hank’s army, men don’t cry… they mask their feelings behind a steely facade and deflective demeanor. Jones nails his performance by giving a turn that will not be soon forgotten. Great actors can reveal with the eyes, every drop of what their character is feeling. Jones’ Hank conveys truckloads of emotion without so much as a smile or frown.
Susan Sarandon’s performance needs mentioning as well. As Hank’s wife and Mike’s mother, her Joan believes Mike felt compelled to enlist only so as to not disappoint his father. And she never lets Hank forget this. Losing both sons to war might mean the reduction to a bawling heap of grief to most mothers, but Joan shows pain through her strength, resolve and insistence. Sarandon never panders to cheap feelings and as a result, she’s totally believable. She feels like what we think a real military wife and mother would be. Surprising to say the least. I have always thought of Surandon as a good actress, however, I did not think her capable of such a performance.
It is very easy to play the fool and say either you are for the war, or you are against it, but do we ever think about the weight of the war on the boys we have over there? I spent a short time in our nation’s military and I will say that I have in no way any idea as to the affects of war on the mind, however I have a small amount of perspective on the overall feeling. There is a scene where Mike calls his father from base camp, pleading to have his father get him out of there. More than any other scene, this particular one made my stomach drop and my eyes tear up. To ask a human being to be a robot is something that is not what we are made to do. As Jack Nicholson’s character says in A Few Good Men, “You have the audacity to huddle under the blanket of protection I provide, and then question the method in which I provide it,” speaks volumes on how the military machine thinks. Two different worlds exist for these young men and women. In The Valley of Elah helps us better understand this. Instead of putting all of your resources into proving a point for either the right or the left, put your energy into films and story lines that make us better understand the humanity in all of these controversial issues which in my opinion brings both sides closer to a universal understanding of the solution to our problems.
If you have not seen a Paul Haggis film, you owe it to yourself to view his entire catalog. This film gets my complete endorsement and recommendation for immediate purchase. That’s all for now, until next time, do your chewing in the sewer.