How am I to feel about Paul Haggis? The creative force behind two of the last three Best Picture Oscar winners (writer of Million Dollar Baby and writer/director of Crash), Haggis is hotter than anybody not named Apatow in Hollywood. But Million Dollar Baby left me feeling sucker-punched with melodrama in the last act, and Crash left me feeling bullied into a corner and browbeaten with lofty message.
But Haggis is also the guy who helped breathe life into James Bond in Casino Royale and acquitted himself admirably as co-author of Clint Eastwood's WWII diptych (Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima).
And now he's made In the Valley of Elah. Inspired by actual events, the plot is about a soldier, just back from Iraq, who has gone missing, and the concerned father, Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones), who investigates his disappearance. The movie kicks up all kinds of dust about combat stress, the horrors of war, the loss of patriotism, and parents coming to grips with the wages of their convictions. This was, I told myself going in, the exact kind of movie Haggis would ruin for me. I'm pleased to report I was wrong.
The bulk of the film is dressed up like a mystery. Hank is a classic red-stater, of the strong and silent mold: former military investigator, pickup-truck driver, prays before meals, drinks Beam. When Hank gets the call from the Army that his son has gone AWOL, he doesn't believe it: The son he raised would never have been derelict in his duties. Hank's wife Joan (Susan Sarandon) is a bundle of nerves over it. In the course of Hank's search, he enlists the aid of Detective Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron), a townie cop near the army base.
Jones is perfectly cast. The script fails him in tracing Hank's growing disillusionment with his country and its institutions, but Jones sells each moment he's given. Also, apparently, when Theron tries to look plain and not ethereally beautiful, it means she's serious about a role. It's the equivalent of Robin Williams' beard. In Elah, her acting's mostly fine, but some of the dialogue is too tin for her ear.
In the Valley of Elah is solemnly anti-war (little "w"). Its depictions of soldiers broken by the experience are universal. But Haggis sets the film very specifically — November 1, 2004 — making it a historical drama. American flags fly in front of every house and on cars. Bush's voice echoes on the radio, and the Iraq War fills TV screens. One character says, "They shouldn't send heroes to a place like Iraq." In this sense, the film is anti-War (big "W"). Haggis doesn't successfully spell out what makes Iraq different from any other war, especially with Vietnam looming a generation ago. But I believe that he believes it. And, in 2004, the cuts were fresh enough to wound faith.
In the Valley of Elah
Opening Friday, September 21st