Despite its creator's prestigious Oscar success with Crash, writer-director Paul Haggis's In the Valley of Elah brings to mind the golden days of the TV movie. Loosely based on the sad story of Army Spc. Richard Davis, Haggis' film takes as its source the 2004 Playboy article "Death and Dishonor," by Mark Boal, but the story was also the TV-ready basis for a 2006 48 Hours Mystery. In and of itself, the story offers rich dramatic material that Haggis exploits well, but the writer-director's unsubtle condescension to his audience represents small thinking that would have seemed more at home on the small screen from whence he came.
In his familiar terse mode, Tommy Lee Jones plays retired U.S. Army M.P. Hank Deerfield, whose long-disused investigatory skills prove invaluable when his son Mike (Jonathan Tucker of Haggis' late, unlamented NBC drama The Black Donnellys) goes missing shortly after returning home from serving in Iraq. Hank's wife Joan (Susan Sarandon) makes it abundantly clear that Mike's primary motivation to join the Army was proving his masculinity to his reserved, religious, patriotic father, which adds a layer of guilt to Hank's already dreadful fact-finding mission.
The inherently engrossing premise of a father playing detective in pursuit of his son and the larger truths about him grows in scope as Hank's investigation crosses that of the police local to Mike's disappearance. Hank earns the ire, respect, and, eventually, trust of Detective Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron), who comes over to Hank's side as she alienates her sexist male co-workers: Lt. Kirklander (Jason Patric) and Chief Buchwald (Josh Brolin). As Hank and Emily come closer to the truth, the mystery develops into a thriller--complete with impressive chase sequence--before reverting to its natural state as a wrenching drama about how war permanently screws with the heads of soldiers, with fallout felt by civilians.
That's a worthy and unfortunately evergreen theme, and the film's spine is sturdy. Jones gives a resonant performance in a role intended for the writer's frequent collaborator Clint Eastwood, and Haggis is capable of convincing behavioral detail, as when creature-of-military-habit Hank makes his own bed even in a motel room. Haggis is also right not to sanctify the character of Mike (some of Jones' best moments come when he discovers unpleasant truths about his son).
Still, Mike's wartime behavior plays less like the case's complicated reality and more like Screenwriting 101. Ditto for Sarandon's thankless role, which puts her on screen with the sole purpose of indulging emotions Jones is required to restrain. Hank's super-competence at digging up clues is a contrivance that stretches credibility (and inappropriately brings to mind Jones' signature role in action fantasy The Fugitive); another plot-rigged device finds Mike's recovered cell-phone videos doled out, one a day, to Hank (damn corrupted files!).
It goes without saying that we'll hear President Bush speaking out of every TV and radio, but there's no need for Haggis to bring his hammer down so hard and so often. From the moment in the film's opening minutes when an auto-parts dealer tells our hero, "You've gotta trust somebody sometime, Hank," we're aware of the screenwriting machinery, a problem that gets out of control when Hank has an extra-narrative encounter with an El Salvadorian school janitor who blithely (and incredibly) flies the American flag upside down. Hank schools him on this international distress signal, a metaphor that Haggis revisits with unforgivable overstatement at picture's end.
Another metaphor arrives with the title, which Haggis unnecessarily inserts into the plot when Hank sits at the bedside of Emily's son and tells the story of David and Goliath. The Biblical metaphor has several possible iterations in the film's contexts, but Haggis' probable intent is to posit any loyal patriot as a David who must first "fight his own fear" and then go after the real Goliath: an untrustworthy U.S. government/military currently occupied with lumbering after its own Middle Eastern opponents. It's the self-loathing path of discovery of Jones' conservative patriot, and one that's certainly played out many times as the worm of Iraq War support has turned over the years.
The anti-war argumentation of In the Valley of Elah is both generic (witness the script-y nonsense "They shouldn't send heroes to places like Iraq," delivered by a young soldier) and emphatic, when a straightforward telling of this real-life mystery would speak more on its own. If less is more, more is, well, less.
Warner gives Oscar contender In the Valley of Elah an excellent audio-visual transfer that accurately recreates the theatrical experience. Two featurettes totalling roughly forty-five minutes—"After Iraq" and "Coming Home"—give a surprisingly in-depth look at the film's production and its modern historical context, focusing on the PTSD of veterans and the real-life case on which the film is based (Davis' parents are interviewed). An extensive deleted scene involving a veteran with missing limbs brings to light a potent sequence cut from the film (before its CGI work was completed). Those wishing to add Jones' Oscar-nominated work to their shelves won't be disappointed, except in the lack of a commentary track.
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