Sunday, January 20, 2008

Review - In the Valley of Elah

The best thing one can say about
In the Valley of Elah is that it's a better film than Crash, but that's pretty faint praise. Two years after Paul Haggis' dumb anti-racism melodrama absurdly won three Oscars, the writer/director has found another hot-button issue to explore in own unsubtle way. In the Valley of Elah is the latest Hollywood film to examine the fallout from the current war in Iraq and, like most of the others, it's a ponderous, preachy and unsatisfying picture, adding little or nothing to the debate. The easiest thing in the world would be to dismiss it as just another mediocre middlebrow drama of no great relevance; but Haggis' decision to cast Tommy Lee Jones and Charlize Theron is his saving grace. These two actors give exceptional performances that keep us watching in spite of the film's flaws, and in doing so they manage to raise the standard of the whole enterprise a few notches above its natural level.

Jones plays a retired army police investigator named Hank Deerfield who, as his name indicates, is a straight-arrow, patriotic American. Hank loves his country, and he's proud to have a son fighting the good fight in Iraq, but he's a little perturbed when he finds out that his son has gone AWOL a few days after returning from the conflict. So, after reassuring his wife (Susan Sarandon, squeezing some moving moments out of a thin role) that everything's probably OK, Hank decides to pack a bag and locate his son himself. However, when a dismembered body turns up his search turns into a murder investigation, and when Hank's enquiries are met with a wall of silence from the authorities, he hooks up with a local cop (Charlize Theron) to dig further into the case, growing increasingly disillusioned and bewildered with every new discovery.

Arriving in cinemas shortly after the Coens'
No Country for Old Men, this is another great part for Jones. No actor can play weary disillusionment like he can, and he brings an extraordinary sense of complexity and gravitas to the part, taking us on every step of Hank's journey as his perception of his country and the war being fought in Iraq is altered dramatically. Hank's struggle to keep a lid on his grief is the most compelling aspect of the picture, and while Haggis gives us plenty of visual signifiers for his frayed emotional state (see how his clothes and bedding grow increasingly unkempt), our real connection with the character lies in the subtle power of Jones' performance. He can bring a sense of authority to the most hackneyed scenes that Haggis can dream up – such as his telling of the David vs. Goliath story, from which the film takes its title – and Jones is matched beat for beat by Theron, who takes her clichéd part (single mum, undermined by the male cops who suspect she slept her way into the job) and really makes it work.

Their performances are the best
In the Valley of Elah has to offer, though. Haggis wants his film to work as both a thriller and a grand statement on the effects of war, but he can't find a seamless way to work the political aspect into the framework of the story. This often leaves the actors with lumps of clumsy anti-war dialogue to deliver, as in the bizarre scene where Theron explodes while interviewing a murder suspect, and the whole procedural aspect of the film just peters out towards the end as Haggis concentrates on making points. To be honest, though, I had lost interest in Hank and Emily's investigation by that point anyway, with the lethargic pacing and slack, arbitrary plotting rendering the film ineffective as a thriller. It almost comes to life in one scene, when Haggis stages a nifty chase sequence, but that's about as lively as the film ever gets. In the Valley of Elah is one of those movies about a grief-stricken character which seems to get bogged down by its own sense of mournfulness, a trap many pictures like this fall into, when a film like Atom Egoyan's masterpiece The Sweet Hereafter has shown how such a narrative can be handled with incredible delicacy and imagination. Haggis's direction never really rises above the adequate, though; and in a year when Roger Deakins has shown what he can do when working alongside directors with a genuine vision – in both No Country for Old Men and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford – it's dispiriting to see him turning in such flat-looking work here.

In the Valley of Elah isn't really a terrible film, it just feels like a faintly useless one which is too bland to work on one level and too heavy-handed to work on another. Haggis wants to show us how war dehumanises everyone directly involved with it, but this is hardly a revelatory concept, and he doesn't have anything fresh to say on the subject. He is surely one of the most frustrating filmmakers around, a writer/director who earnestly wants to engage with serious issues, but whose style is so head-slappingly obvious you ultimately wish he hadn't bothered. I suppose we can be thankful at least that In the Valley of Elah is some kind of advancement from Crash and – who knows? – one day we may look at a Paul Haggis film and be genuinely stirred by what he has to say, but it's hard to take any of his messages seriously when he engages in the kind of crass symbolism on display in this film's final shot.