' Cinema Romantico: In the Valley of the Elah

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

In the Valley of the Elah

I think the majority of America has reached the conclusion that regardless of what we may hear from the administration or the news or whoever else that really, truly we have no idea what the hell is going on in Iraq. Only the soldiers who have been there know.

Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones, in a role he was born to play) is someone, I think, who is under the impression he knows what's going on in Iraq. He is a former military cop and his son Mike is currently serving and has just returned from Iraq. One day Hank gets a call from the military advising him that his son as gone AWOL. In a few days they will report him as missing. Hank immediately heads for his son's base to see if he can figure out what is going on. He talks to some of Mike's fellow soldiers. He checks out bars and restaurants his son frequented. He tries to get the assistance of local detective Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron, admirably dialing down the glam factor) who refers him back to the military police.

But then some charred remains are found on the side of a dirt road. It is Mike. There is question over whose jurisdiction the murder happened in - is it a case for the local police or the military police? It is the military. But Hank asks Emily to drive him out to the murder scene and his personal investigation digs a little deeper.

It is a procedural film, yes, with Tommy Lee Jones as the lead and Charlize Theron his sidekick, but that basic premise masks something else. As the film progresses we realize Hank did not know as much about his son as he thought, or as much about what was really happening in Iraq as he thought. And when the moment of reckoning comes it's chilling in how matter-of-fact it is. The expression you'll have will be identical to Theron's. It's when you (and the characters) fully grasp that none of us get it.

And the key is the movie allows you to draw this conclusion on your own. Hank never sits down and gives some god-awful speech like, "The truth is, none of us know what's really going on over there." The movie has something to say it but doesn't say it right to your face.

Which makes it all the more odd, and rather wretched, that writer/director Paul Haggis resorts to an inane metaphor midway through. Truth be told, I should have seen it coming when you take into account the film's title but the first half of the movie completely ignores this sort of grandstanding (as in, look at how meaningful my movie is!) and I thought we may be in the clear. But alas, Hank comes to Emily's for dinner and then he sits down and gives her son this long rap about the old "David and Goliath" story and I found myself looking at the movie theater ceiling - anywhere but the screen - and thinking, "Is this really happening?" In this case Haggis had something he wanted to say (something he wanted us to know beyond any shadow of a doubt) and so he says it right to our face.

But that was nothing compared to the ending. (Or the second ending, if you prefer, since the movie has a good ending right there for the taking.)

It's becoming clear that Mr. Haggis needs to steer away from the Pound-the-Hammer Syndrome. This occurs when a director has a point he or she wants to make and therefore they take a hammer and pound that point into your head. Haggis wrote "Million Dollar Baby" and that was pretty much as good as screenplays get. But in that case it was based on a piece of literature and so he was constrained to what he could and could not do. However, with this movie and his previous one "Crash" (for which he had his hammer firmly in the hand for the duration of the running time) he was writing originally and could Pound-the-Hammer as much and whenever he wanted.

I had to give it a couple days and try to determine if I disliked the ending to "In the Valley of Elah" so much because the ending itself was that bad or because I'd seen "Eastern Promises" a few days prior which had a perfect ending. But no, it had nothing to do with "Eastern Promises". In fact, I was so darn happy to see how "Eastern Promises" concluded because of conclusions like the one for "In the Valley of Elah's". It's a perfect illustration of how so many movies nowadays don't know when to call it quits.

I won't give it away but I'll just say in relation to the closing shot - put the hammer down, Paul. For the love of God, put the hammer down.

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