Monday, April 21, 2008

In the Valley of Elah

There is a good movie here wishing it could be born out of this mess. Tommy Lee Jones is giving it all he's got, portraying a meticulous and persevering war vet trying to uncover the mystery of his son's death. Some nice details build his character... like the way he creases his pants even when he's living out of a motel room; or the way he pumps young soldiers for information by inviting them to share a cigarette or a shot of Jim Beam. The center of the film is a half-hearted attempt at a detective story, with Tommy Lee and Charlize Theron sniffing out a cover up. I say "half-hearted" because the film never fully commits to engaging you in the detective story... instead, it gets distracted. There's an aborted try at a family drama (where TL Jones becomes surrogate daddy for Charlize's kid, which is not only unbelievable, but only lasts for about 2 minutes and is never mentioned again); some limp attempts to address racial prejudice (in which TL Jones again breaks character and beats a man while delivering an ethnic slur); and wasted appearances by fine actors Barry Corbin and Josh Brolin. Their screen time is well-written and compellingly delivered, but fails to contribute to any central thrust of the film. (BTW, I think this must have been filmed around the same time as No Country for Old Men, which might explain how at least three cast members appeared in both films.)

The film hints at fertile territory, but it's all undone by a heavy-handed insistence at creating a "message" film. As such, it reeks of embarrassingly obvious symbolism and propaganda. It's the same sort of failure that plagued Fast Food Nation. Lots of good actors contribute to both films (no doubt they support the respective causes) but nothing cohesive or satisfying comes of it.

I would only recommend In the Valley of Elah for Tommy Lee Jones completists. Otherwise, like me, you'll probably want your two hours back.


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John said...

Jim, I just read your previously posted review of ItVoE... looks like we picked up on some of the same issues, but you were a bit kinder than me in your overall assessment.

I hadn't realized this was the same director as Crash... that explains a few things... since I thought Crash was one of the most overhyped pieces of garbage put out that year.

Jon said...

I am going to resist the temptation to get into a flaming war about Crash which I thought thoroughly deserved its Oscar but merely to add that I thought Haggis showed again what he can get out of his actors. Just like Sandra Bullock in Crash.

For me, ITVOE worked fine until the moment that Charlize Theron opens the envelope that has been sitting on her desk all day and then the movie becomes as Jim says too telegraphed and too concerned to tie up all the ends in a way that does not ring exactly true. Do we really need to have a trio of soldiers stab their comrade to death, cut up his body, burn it, and then make use his credit card at a fast food restaurant because PTSD makes a fella awfully hungry for us to get what is happening to the men and women we are sending off to fight for us in Iraq?

Jon said...

Sorry, I meant to say Oscars.

John said...

Jon, I think we agree here (about ItVoE, not about Crash.) I did say that a good movie was trying to emerge from this "mess". The good movie I'm talking about is the very dark and powerful drama about what US Army conditioning and serving in a place like Iraq does to a man. I found that very worthy topic was undone by the alternating heavy-handedness and "scattered" feeling I was left with.

I did some revision to my original post, qualifying a bit of my rhetoric. But my opinion remains that this is a disappointing "2 out of 5" film.

Yojimbo_5 said...

I've already done a review, so I'm plowing the same field, but I would remind that Hank Deerfield is not only a detective--an Army investigator--but he's also the father of the deceased. It's a period of mourning for a father who still believes in America, still believes in his son and his duty, and still believes in the Army to his corps (sorry), even when everything else (his wife's reaction) is guilting him to question those beliefs. Like any detective story, the Seeker's story and what he learns from his discoveries about his clients and himself are equally important. What Haggis is getting at is: What will turn this set-in-stone defender of the Army the other way. The detective story and the character arc for the detective are intertwined, as they always are.

I "bought" the surrogate dad thing, because Deerfield is filling a void from the loss of his son--as, indeed, his entire need to find answers for himself, is. It's in character.

I "bought" the dinner thing because it's an aspect to PTSD, in all its brutal synapse-screwing mysteries. I just read a comment on IMDB from an Israeli solder (who's evidently pretty damaged), who saw this movie and wrote: "I understand it--they were hungry."
Just that. That response reminded me of the toll--the hammer-crushing toll to those who go to hell and come back. Every so often, real life shows me a window into survivor's guilt and PTSD, and it just chills me to my marrow. I hope I never understand it.

Incidentally, the soldier's name this story was based on is Richard Davis. He went missing, his father, a 20 year Army vet, investigated, found that his son was murdered by four members of his troop. They are all currently in prison--2 for life, 1 for 20 years, 1 got 5.

Here's his family's website for him:

I think this was a good film, well worth seeing if only for Jones' and Sarandon's performances, but Haggis needs a couple more films under his belt to work on some of his "obviousness" issues. (sarcasm) Maybe he and M. Night Shyamalan can take one of those Robert McKee "script homogenization" courses.(/sarcasm)

Yojimbo_5 said...

By the way, anyone want to comment on my "Burmese Harp" review?