“In the Valley of Elah”: The More Things Change…

In the Valley of Elah

There’s a great cast of supporting actors in In the Valley of Elah, a film that deserves far more attention than its received. There’s Jason Patric, Josh Brolin, Susan Sarandon and about half the cast from No Country for Old Men. Charlize Theron as Detective Emily Sanders does some of the best work I’ve seen her do (and it’s done without boasting about the paring down of her beauty.)

But the performance that steals the show is Tommy Lee Jones as Hank Deerfield, creating the third best character I’ve seen at the theatres this year (just behind Daniel Plainview and Anton Chigurh.) Hank is a man of simplicity, a man of strong religious values, a military man who continues to live the rituals that were ingrained in his head. The blankets have to be perfectly tucked under the bed, face cleanly shaved to a fault, shoes shined and cleaned…everything he does is by the book. Jones instills such a strong sense of virtue in this former Military Police Officer that it’s easy to love him despite his hard headed nature, and the fact that he sees himself as more capable than those around him.

Hank’s a man who doesn’t believe that his son, also military, would go AWOL, but when the son doesn’t answer phone calls or emails Hank steps out on his own to do some investigating. He hits a road block going the military route and seeks help at the local police station where he meets and butts heads with Det. Sanders. Theron isn’t afraid to play Sanders with the humility of a great actor. Even though she finds Sanders strength in the character’s son and a drive to prove herself among her fellow detectives, she remains far from perfect.

The great thing about Jones is that he handles sadness and defeat better than any actor I’ve seen in a while. It’s heart breaking watching Hank find the clues that leads him to the truth about what’s happened to his son. But Director Paul Haggis hasn’t just written a procedural drama, he has something on his mind. Our children and the impact of war on them. But not just physically, also spiritually. For Hank finding out that the government doesn’t take care of their own like they used to is a difficult thing and Haggis with what could be a polarizing issue treads with the skill of someone who cares about more than just politics, and like Hank who can hardly believe what he sees, the situation fills us with a righteous fury.

But that’s one of the things that bothered me about the film. I know Hank was Military Police, but he served during Vietnam, probably the most tumultuous time for our troops and Americans’ view of war. Maybe it’s my ignorance, but the fact that he has come from Vietnam with such a naive view of patriotism and what can happen during war felt false to me, at first. Instead maybe it’s the fact that Hank believed the United States had learned it’s lesson. Haggis doesn’t believe we have. I still remain uncertain about this element of the film.

Otherwise he’s crafted a film that equals the skill of Crash and Million Dollar Baby and is far better than his last scripted war films Flags of our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima. I heard him say after a screening once that he didn’t like 75% of Crash, and in a more recent interview that he wanted to make something more subtle and subdued, and he has. The emotions lie deep but remain beautifully restrained. He deals with subject matters that as a writer he is drawn to, like racial prejudice, without hammering away on us. And he sticks to his guns until an almost unforgivable final three minutes of the film.

Not trusting the audience he piles on the message. The telling action Hank takes is fine, but the music wining away kills any level of seriousness and heads straight to sentimental town. I also slapped my hand against my forehead when Hank put together the puzzle of what happened in Iraq. The moment that killed the innocence in the young, uncertain, unwise men we ship off to kill others of the same ilk was less than startling. Haggis almost made it to the finish line without shouting at us what he wanted to say…almost, and that’s good enough.

Every aspiring screenwriter should see this film. In almost every way it’s perfect. Any aspiring actor should watch Tommy Lee Jones and Charlize Theron get rid of their star status and political leanings and play people of the earth without the quirks that Hollywood likes to throw at them for their own amusement. Just see this film if you get a chance.

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