Friday, September 16, 2011

In the Valley of Elah

This week, we're re-publishing some reviews of the films from the post 9-11 environment.

The Quagmire at Home

This is Paul Haggis' first directorial effort since Crash. In the meantime he wrote three films for Clint Eastwood, The Last Kiss and Casino Royale. He wrote this one for Eastwood, too, but to star in, not direct, which Clintus declined, saying that he's retired from acting. Too bad. This one might have gotten him that Best Actor Oscar. As it is, Tommy Lee Jones has the role, probably does a better job of it, and is certainly deserving of an Oscar. His Hank Deerfield, ex-Army investigator, is a portrait of a guy so meticulous, so disciplined that you wait for him to crack the whole film. It's one of the joys of the film, along with another of Charlize Theron's fine "de-glammed" performances, and Susan Sarandon bringing maximum effort to a small but vital role, all doing great work in a film that tries to be too many things, though it does succeed in many of them.

Part mystery, part war-story, part psychological drama, "Elah," punctuates its story with fragments of media recovered from a cell-phone that, like "Blow-Up" and "The Conversation," give tantalizingly legible glimpses into Deerfield's son's tour in Iraq, and frustratingly opaque clues into his post-Iraq behavior. He's gone AWOL, and Dad Deerfield goes to New Mexico to get to the bottom of it, because that's what he does. Once there, he and a detective try to piece together the evidence, and fight the bureaucratic red tape that hinders their work. Just as Crash owes so much to La Ronde," Elah calls to mind Courage Under Fire, about the death of a Persian Gulf War veteran, where conflicting stories and the subject of post-traumatic stress disorder are dealt with tangentially. Here, it's more overt, but there is an underlying message of the power of doing nothing, or of passing the buck, even ignoring the buck, taking the easy way out, or as the phrase went in Chinatown, the futility of good intentions, when not backed with action. The characters of In the Valley of Elah do "as little as possible" until provoked, challenged and threatened, and its reach is all-pervasive. In the end there is no one perpetrator, but a constant thread of sins of omission, and therein lies the tragedy.

As he did so much in Crash, Haggis telegraphs too many things, with some pretty obvious set-ups that are none too subtle.** The man just doesn't believe in red herrings, and everything gets used. Maybe that's his buttoned-up-in-25-minutes television writing showing. He's become better at cloaking some, though, hiding them in plain sight until they're trotted out for weighty significance. Some will see his final statement as un-American (which they're looking for, I expect), but a careful reading of what's gone before* reveals exactly what he's saying, and its entirely appropriate and, frankly, completely non-controversial. But Haggis seems to invite mis-interpretation. It's what makes him interesting. On top of that, you'll never see better work out of Tommy Lee Jones and Susan Sarandon and their scenes together have a lived-in familiarity and friction that speaks volumes of history and experience. There's some awfully good work in this.

In the Valley of Elah is a solid Matinee.

* Easy for me to say, I take notes!

** According to the Addictionary, this is called "five-shadowing"

1 comment:

Candice Frederick said...

Crash is one of my favorite movies, but i thought this movie was a bit slow, but had really god performances throughout.