Tommy Lee Jones and Susan Sarandon confront the loss of their son in
Paul Haggis’ In the Valley of Elah (2007)
To the extent that Paul Haggis’ new film In the Valley of Elah works (and it does work despite my admitted prejudices against the writer/director), much of the success can be credited to Tommy Lee Jones as Hank Deerfield, the father whose son has disappeared soon after returning stateside from a tour of duty in Iraq.
Hank is a military man; the kind who believes in god and country; the kind who sees the Army as a potential character builder for his son Mike. Hank is taciturn. He’s regimented. He seems a bit uncomfortable in civilian life, but he’s a good man and confident in his beliefs. As he digs deeper into the mystery of what happened to his son, watching him call into question everything he thinks he knows, not only about his country and the military, but also his own son, is gripping and heart wrenching.
I admit that I went into In the Valley of Elah with much skepticism. I don’t want to launch into an anti-Haggis rant here, but based on his previous film Crash, I was expecting preachy heavy-handedness and a smug conviction of moral correctness. I assumed Haggis would go for the obvious and unsubtle, playing to the cheap seats for fear that his audience wasn’t smart enough to understand his message. With the biblical title and the ominous, ripped-from-the-headlines subject, In the Valley of Elah could easily have been a pretentious, eye gouging mess.
I’m pleasantly surprised to report that it’s really pretty good.
At its core, In the Valley of Elah is an engrossing detective story that begins when Hank receives a phone call telling him Mike is missing. Though he says to his wife (Susan Sarandon) that there must be a good explanation, perhaps a case of boys being boys letting off steam after a tough tour of duty in an enemy country, he senses from the beginning it might be something deeper and, sadly, he’s right.
First there are snippets of a remembered phone call where Mike tried to tell his father about something that had happened to him while on duty. Then there are the mysterious images found on Mike’s damaged cell phone, one of them showing a body lying on the side of a dusty road. There are also glimpses of video of some of the nightmarish things Mike must have seen. They’re just fragments of Mike’s experiences in war, but they haunt Hank as the memories probably haunted his son.
When the chopped up and charred remains of Mike’s body are finally found, Hank has more questions than he has answers. He doesn’t understand how his son could have survived months in a country full of people who wanted to kill him only to be murdered when he finally made it home to safety. The local police department is happy enough to have the investigation fall under military jurisdiction while the military prefers to find quick and pat answers. Hank is not satisfied with quick or pat, however. He wants the truth as painful as it may be and for help he turns to the initially reluctant local police detective Charlize Theron.
This basic mystery keeps the movie purring along, but it’s Tommy Lee Jones who elevates it into something finer. Hank isn’t a character prone to tipping his emotional hand so there aren’t a lot of histrionics for Jones to show off with. He doesn’t need them. His simple, direct, unaffected delivery is a perfect compliment to his weary yet determined hound dog’s face. It’s a face that subtly registers a range of emotions as Hank moves from conviction to doubt as he begins to question things he’s always taken for granted. Finally there is guilt as he begins to realize he may have been able to help his son if he’d only really listened to what Mike was trying to tell him.
As good as Jones is, Charlize Theron is nearly his equal as the detective, a single mother doing a man’s job in a small town. She’s skeptical of Hank at first, but slowly comes to realize that he’s right and wants to help him. In the role, Theron seems perfectly at ease. She plays off Tommy Lee Jones without getting buried by him or trying to upstage him. It’s an interesting shared dynamic and, for the first time, I didn’t feel like she was mentally composing an Oscar acceptance speech as she played her scenes. She disappeared into the character and didn’t make an actorly show of it.
Susan Sarandon has less to do as Hank’s grieving wife, but she’s central to one of my favorite scenes: the one where Hank calls to tell her Mike is dead. Interestingly, the scene begins after the news has been broken instead of before. Her cheeks are stained with tears, but she is mostly composed. As the scene plays out, the camera pulls back and only then do we see that Sarandon is sitting on the floor against the wall and next to her the table with the phone and a lamp has been spilled over. We don’t get to see the fireworks of her meltdown, but we know it happened. It’s a moment of restraint from a director I didn’t think capable and it’s powerful. Though I’ve already given the bulk of the credit for the success of the movie to Jones, Haggis deserves his share and he’s at his best in scenes like this.
Unfortunately, Haggis isn’t content to keep his story contained within this small human drama. He has to broaden his scope to try and say something about the nature of war or humanity or whatever. That’s fine, but I think he overreaches to the film’s detriment. It’s not fatal, but it’s unnecessary. There is some over-obvious business with a flag that seems to suggest Hank has gone through a kind of transformation I didn’t quite buy. Yes, war is hell and the military creates monsters, but as a Vietnam veteran, surely Hank knew this already. Is Haggis suggesting that the Iraq war is somehow different and more horrible than any of the wars that have come before it? If he is, I think he’s wrong. If he’s not then the transformation is simply convenient to the director’s message. Either way, it’s too bad.
Despite my reservations, In the Valley of Elah is still a worthy film. Besides the terrific central performances by Jones and Theron, Josh Brolin, Jason Patric and James Franco are all good in smaller roles. The muted, restrained cinematography by Roger Deakins is also excellent. On balance, it’s not a perfect movie, but it’s a satisfying one and I recommend it, especially for fans of Tommy Lee Jones. For now I take back the many bad things I’ve said about Paul Haggis.
In the Valley of Elah. USA 2007. Written and directed by Paul Haggis. Cinematography by Roger Deakins. Music score composed byMark Isham. Starring Tommy Lee Jones, Charlize Theron, Susan Sarandon, James Franco, Jonathan Tucker, James Brolin and Jason Patric. 2 hours. Rated R for violent and disturbing content, language and some sexuality/nudity. 3 stars (out of 5)