Review: In the Valley of Elah (2007) ***

In the Valley of Elah
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)


11 thoughts on “Review: In the Valley of Elah (2007) ***

  1. With ‘No country for old men’ that’s two good movies of Tommy Lee Jones this year. Too bad these kind movies take a very long time to release in India. Actually I don’t think this is gonna release over here.. damn!!

  2. I’m essentally seeing Elah as a starter to what I perceive to be the TLJ entree that’s coming up next month, but I’m glad to hear that its better than expected.

    I’m going to try to do this and The Kingdom this weekend. The Kingdom is close so that’s guaranteed, Elah is an hour away so we’ll see.

  3. It’s not just a double dip of Tommy Lee, but also of Roger Deakins who did the cinematography for both Elah and No Country.

    He also did The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford which I intend to see this weekend. Deakins has been a busy man!

    There’s gotta be at least ONE Oscar in there, right?

  4. I’m not going to go into a full-blown review here because Craig, you’ve already covered the bases pretty well, but I will say that this movie’s successes owe a LOT to Tommy Lee Jones’ giving an Oscar-worthy performance and Paul Haggis doing his level best to restrain all of his worst traits as a storyteller. I’m not as sold on Charlize Theron, even though I thought she wasn’t bad. I guess I felt her character had a few too many perfunctory Haggis moments (yes, being a woman cop is hard and being a hot woman cop in a small, backwater town is even harder) and it felt too familiar to the Theron Oscar canon to me. I’m not sure.

    Susan Sarandon does get the showy scenes here but I thought she was absolutely brilliant. She has a couple lines that a lesser actress would have delivered in a way over-the-top manner, but Sarandon handles them with complete realism and honesty. Her body language conveys far more of her interior torment and loss than any verbal histrionics would have.

    And I agree that are a few heavy-handed scenes, including one that was telegraphed early in the movie and yet completely unnecessary, but overall this film works really well. Part of that is Deakins’ brilliant camera work, part of that is Haggis’ very restrained storytelling, part of it is that the movie actually works against the Haggis detractors (like myself) by not wallowing in it’s own political self-importance.

    Not perfect, but far better than I could have expected. Thumbs up.

  5. The irony here for me is that I think if I wasn’t skeptical about Haggis, I might not have liked the movie as well as I did. Going in expecting to dislike it and coming out pleasantly surprised was nice.

    Sarandon was great, but I think maybe her part was overwritten. Haggis couldn’t resist using her to push the emotional buttons he mainly avoided with Jones.

    As for Theron and her character, the sexism angle had the potential to get really carried away, but it was mostly restrained. She seemed more relaxed than in North Country which I didn’t like at all.

  6. Yes, I think I liked it more than I would have otherwise because I hold Paul Haggis in such low esteem. Ironic, no?

    I agree that Sarandon’s part was overwritten, or at least that her lines were overdone (not like she has a lot of screen time) but I thought she pulled it off really well. She could have chewed the scenery and she skipped that.

    I’ve read some of review snippets on Rottentomatoes and it would seem most mainstream critics took the knives out on Haggis for this one and yet still gave the movie positive reviews for the most part, apparently on account of Tommy Lee Jones.

    Weird. They hate the writing, the directing, and the narrative but they like one performance and give it a thumbs up? Methinks most critics actually liked the movie overall more than they are willing to admit.

  7. Jones makes it cool to like Haggis I guess. I agree the movie is nothing without him, but it’s only fair to say that much of that character is in the writing.

    As for Sarandon, as I said in the review she was in my favorite scene in the movie. Again though, as good as she is, that scene works because of a decision Haggis made, either in the writing or the shooting or the editing. Sarandon sells it, but showing the impact of her meltdown rather than the meltdown itself showed a lot of restraint on Haggis’ part.

    If he’d follow that instinct more often, we might not even be having this conversation.

  8. That brings up a good point though. Was it his instinct or the collaboration with the DP or editor that created that moment? We’ll likely never know (and I suppose it really doesn’t matter) but a choice like that could have come from a number of sources.

    I guess my point is that we often credit and fault directors for elements they might not be completely responsible for.

  9. That’s the classic question of where the director’s job begins and ends. In this case I’m leaning towards Haggis involvement in every aspect of the production, but this isn’t based on anything you could possibly call actual knowledge.

    You know, the thing is though, the more I think about this movie and the farther I get from it, the less I’m liking it. I stand by my recommendation based entirely on Tommy Lee Jones, but I might have to write a little follow up review like the kind I never pulled off for 3:10 to Yuma or Eastern Promises.

  10. Craig, you liked this film more than I did. Oddly, I think Crash is the one really good thing that Haggis has done. In fact, at this point I view him as a one-hit wonder.

    (POTENTIAL SPOILER IN THIS PARAGRAPH): Back to Elah. The best thing I found in it was Tommy Lee’s performance. Unfortunately, as written, it took a downturn toward the end. And that last flag moment may have a negative impact on his Oscar chances, though he was so good it may not make a difference.

    Other than that, though, I felt that too many aspects of this film were a bit heavy-handed and overdone, with “effect” in mind (as in, “Oh boy, let’s do that! It’ll really play good!)

    Although there was nothing wrong with Sarandon’s acting, this is the first time she annoyed me. I’m not sure why, because I think she’s absolutely brilliant and never less than very good.

    Even the score seemed overdone to me. It seemed to be a little too much, too obviously designed to evoke emotion and not properly timed with the accompanying visuals.

    The whole thing seemed like Haggis was playing by numbers. And I hate to say it because I’m sure there were good intentions all around this project.

  11. Partly Pierre, I think this movie is a case of lowered expectations. I went in expecting little and was treated to a great character and performance by TLJ and that was enough to get me feeling enthusiastic.

    I have to admit my enthusiasm for the fim has cooled some in the ensuing weeks. I still thought Jones was spectacular, but the other flaws you refer to stick out more.

    They say an movie is only as good as its ending and this one almost completely dropped the ball for me.

    I don’t dislike Crash the way the true haters do, but I have some big issues with it. Mainly the fact that characters acted in ways that didn’t seem real, but that were required for Haggis to make his point about racial tension in the Big City. “Hey look, even good people are capable of racism, even racists can be good and not everyone fits into their stereotype!” Yeah, no kidding. Thanks for the tip, Paul.

    Anyway, back to Elah. I don’t remember if I said it here or elsewhere, but the main issue I have with it is that it’s asking you to believe TLJ sort of capitulated his core beliefs he’s held for a lifetime and I didn’t buy it.

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