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In the Valley of Elah
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Another Barely Digestible Helping Of Haggis"
2 stars

With “In The Valley Of Elah,” his follow-up to the absurdly overpraised “Crash,” writer-director Paul Haggis solidifies his position as this generation’s Stanley Kramer. For those of you with short memories, Kramer was a producer-director who specialized in making films that claimed to be making grand and profound statements about the ills of the world. His formula was simple; he would come up with one not-exactly-profound thought–Racism Is Bad (“The Defiant Ones,” “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner”), Nuclear War Is Bad (“On the Beach”), The Holocaust Is Bad (“Ship of Fools,” “Judgement At Nuremberg”), Greed Is Bad (“It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World”)–and then hammer it home repeatedly for a couple of hours within the context of a big, glossy and star-choked melodrama. In his heyday, Kramer’s films–at least the ones made before 1970–were generally hailed by critics and audiences alike but when you try to watch one of them today, you may be dumbfounded as to how films so leadenly earnest and crashingly obvious could have ever received so much praise in the first place. On the basis of only two films, Haggis seems to have fully inherited Kramer’s dubious mantle with only one key difference–I sincerely doubt that it will take movie lovers quite as long to realize that he is a clumsy filmmaker who has been erroneously deemed some kind of cinematic genius by the kind of people who assume that because a film is about an important subject, it must be important itself.

Set during the first couple of weeks of November, 2004 (with news about the upcoming presidential election serving as a not-so-subtle Greek chorus), “In The Valley Of Elah” opens as Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones) receives a call informing him that his son, Mike (Jonathan Tucker), has gone AWOL from his military base after returning home from serving in Iraq. This comes as news to Hank–he was under the impression that Mike was still overseas–and so the former career officer packs up his bag, says goodbye to wife Joan (Susan Sarandon) and goes off to the base to check things out for himself. At first, the assumption is that Mike has just taken off for a couple of days to blow off some steam but something doesn’t seem right to Hank and he decides to launch his own investigation–he pockets his son’s cell phone and hires a computer whiz to unscramble the videos captured on it (the contents of which will unfold as the story progresses) and he goes to the local police to ask them to investigate, only to get the brush-off from Det. Emily Saunders (Charlize Theron), an overworked and underappreciated cop who is too busy fending off sexist accusation of how she got her job from her hee-haw coworkers to actually perform said job. (The next paragraph contains a couple of spoilers, so those who are sensitive to such things should probably skip ahead.)

A body–well, the chopped-up and badly-burned remains of a body–turns up on a patch of land that is a grey area between military and local police jurisdictions and it turns out, of course, to be Mike. The local police are more than happy to hand it over to the military and the officers in charge of the case on that end, Sgt. Carnelli (James Franco) and Lt. Kirklander (Jason Patric), are little more than bureaucrats who are content to sweep the entire thing under the rug as much as possible in order to avoid any messiness. Needless to say, Hank thinks this stinks and uses his innate powers of deduction in order to throw the case back to the local police. Needless to say, Emily also thinks this stinks and decides to make up for her initial aloofness by helping Hank in his investigation. Together, the two begin to peel away the various levels of secrecy and denial in order to discover what really happened to Mike, both in Iraq and at home.

Essentially, “In The Valley Of Elah” wants to do two distinct things–it wants to serve as a grand statement about the war in Iraq, specifically the astonishing emotional pressures placed on those serving both in the battlefield and on the homefront, but it also wants to be a pulpy murder-mystery as well. Alas, the two conceits never quite successfully blend here–the Iraq material offers viewers little more than platitude-driven dialogue like “They shouldn’t send heroes to places like Iraq” or ham-fisted subplots that exist only to further underline a point that doesn’t really need additional underlining. (The moment we see the terrified wife of a returned soldier unsuccessfully trying to convince the police that he has become violently unstable early on in the film, we can pretty much start ticking off the moments until we learn her terrible and crashingly obvious fate towards the end.) As for the mystery elements, they basically consist of the cops doing stupid things that lead them to launching into erroneous conclusions and Tommy Lee Jones breezily pointing out their huge and glaring errors over and over. Haggis tries to spark interest by throwing in a number of red herrings and shocking plot twists but they never do much more than point out the essential hollowness of the material. As for the resolution of the mystery, I won’t give anything away except to note that even those who are with the film up until that moment are likely to come away disappointed with the way in which it has been resolved. (Don’t even get me started on the film’s final image, an in-your-face restating of the basic theme that is so ham-fisted that you just want to smack Haggis for having so little faith in the comprehensive abilities of his viewers.)

The one aspect of “In The Valley Of Elah” that does work–the one that single-handedly continues to generate interest in the film long after the rest have fallen by the wayside–is the highly impressive lead performance from Tommy Lee Jones. Of course, we all know that Jones is an excellent actor and one of the few performers out there with the force and power to convince you that ever word he utters is the real deal. That ability is especially important in a film like this where the screenplay offers him so many implausible scenes that he manages to transform into something reasonably convincing. There is a scene about halfway through in which his character has been invited to join the detective and her young son for dinner and finds himself tucking the latter into bed by first attempting to read to him from “The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe” (“I don’t understand one word of it.”) and then tells a tale that both explains the title of the film (it is the place where David met Goliath in battle) and encourages the tyke to finally man up and sleep with the door mostly closed. Considering the fact that it involves acting opposite a cutesy tyke and delivering a self-consciously symbolic monologue, this is the kind of scene that would give even the best actors pause and yet Jones’ grave and intense presence lends it an authenticity that it never could have achieved on its own. Sadly, while the film has an excellent cast, presumably because half of Hollywood wanted to sign on for the new Haggis joint in the wake of the ensemble success of “Crash,” the others either have been given too little to do (Sarandon, for example, barely appears in the film at all) or are unable to overcome the weak writing. (Theron, who really needs to do a funny, sexy comedy as soon as possible, does what she can but her cipher of a character is all but obliterated whenever she and Tommy Lee Jones share the same scene, which is often.)

To be fair, “In The Valley Of Elah” is better than “Crash”–then again, so is “The Brothers Solomon”–but that still doesn’t make it a good film by any stretch of the imagination. The problem is that whatever Haggis’ skills as a filmmaker may be, subtlety is not one of them and his relentless determination to hammer his points home long after even the densest viewers have caught on winds up rendering his points null and void after a while. If you enjoy been talked down to or eagerly await Very Special Episodes of your favorite TV shows (perhaps not coincidentally, Haggis used to write for “The Facts Of Life,” a show that heavily trafficked in such things), then “In The Valley Of Elah” should be right up your alley. If not, perhaps you should try something a tad more subtle, such as an Oliver Stone film or a punch to the face–trust me, either one will be more entertaining and informative than this film.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=16432&reviewer=389
originally posted: 09/14/07 00:34:57
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2007 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

8/23/12 roscoe jones is great, but the film is a bore and too silent 3 stars
4/17/10 tc bronson This is a great movie. Give it up Rambo fans 5 stars
11/22/08 CTT Hilariously anti-military; the world according to Haggis 1 stars
11/08/08 daveyt am I the only one who thought Jones snoozed on autopilot in this one? Unpleasant subject 3 stars
10/19/08 mr.mike While Jones always excels , pic loses potency due to some deadly dull stretches. 3 stars
3/01/08 Theresa Wagner Sad, brought tears to my eyes. Brings home the reality of the human cost of war 4 stars
1/25/08 proper amateur film critic stereotypical and underdeveloped 2 stars
12/13/07 William Goss A standard-issue murder mystery coated in headline fodder. Jones tries to even out Haggis. 3 stars
9/17/07 D Tantamount to bein beaten over the head with a bag of oranges, over and over and over again 1 stars
9/16/07 Private Touches upon aspects that it is unwilling to confront but still solid. TLJ gives it soul. 4 stars
8/24/07 Saira Amazing and heart breaking... its an excellent film that is brave enough to show reality. 5 stars
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  14-Sep-2007 (R)
  DVD: 19-Feb-2008



Directed by
  Paul Haggis

Written by
  Paul Haggis

  Tommy Lee Jones
  Charlize Theron
  Susan Sarandon
  James Franco
  Josh Brolin
  Jason Patric

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