I hated Paul Haggis’s film “Crash.” Absolutely loathed it. I felt it was heavy handed and rather than make any sort of cogent, logical point, it sought to make everyone feel something they already knew: judging people because of their race is small minded and wrong. We are all individuals. Yay! It’s a simple trick used in advertising where people feel good about knowing something that the salesman told them when in fact, they already knew it(for instance, “you’re a smart person, you’d never buy an unsafe car for your family”) and I didn’t dig the manipulation. I had all these things on my mind as I went in to Haggis’s latest film, “In the Valley of Elah.” What kind of heavy-handed obviousness would Haggis throw at me this time? But as the lights went down, I forced my negative “Crash” thoughts out of my mind and settled in for one of the most powerful films I’ve seen in years.
In one sense, “In the Valley of Elah” is a mystery film as it opens with retired Army sergeant Hank Deerfield (Jones) being awakened to an early morning phone call informing him his son Mike has gone AWOL. Ever the stoic, disciplined Army man, Jones calmly informs the caller he hasn’t seen his son but will let them know if he does. Almost instantly, Deerfield is in his truck making the two-day trip to the base in less than a day in order to find his missing son. Once there, bad news sets in as a body is found and worlds collide as the Army and lazy local authorities bicker over who has jurisdiction over the crime scene. Meanwhile Deerfield circumvents procedure as well as the law and gets to work trying to uncover who is behind the grisly murder of his son. It just so happens Deerfield was a criminal investigator while he was in the Army and when his background mixes with his icy cold personae, toes get stepped on-especially those of newly appointed detective Emily Sanders (Theron). The film is a constant clash of morals, values, personalities and realities and for as much as there is going on, the clashes never seem forced or false.
Even though “In the Valley of Elah” is a compelling mystery, there’s also much, much more going on within the film. Haggis handles commingling storylines better than anyone I’ve seen in some time. While I never would have thought this based on “Crash,” here Haggis does a superb job of twisting and turning the plot back and forth, in and outside on itself until we’re never quite sure who or what to believe. Bureaucracy blends with politics and family drama mixes with duty to self and country and slowly a very strong, yet tough to swallow message about what happens to men when they’re sent to war emerges. But even those short recaps sell the film short in terms of what exactly Haggis is getting at and what this film is summarily about.
Visually “In the Valley of Elah” has a bleached out, stark look almost to the point of distraction, yet through it, the humanity of all the characters slowly seeps out onto the screen and by the end of the film, you understand the reasoning for the films bleak visuals. Haggis successfully marries two oppositional forces; the visual tone of the film and the human elements of the characters and of the world at large.
Now, there were some things that annoyed me in this film. Namely, another excellent performance by Theron wherein she must be “really” acting if she looks drab and dressed down. Granted, the glamorous and beautiful version of Theron wouldn’t work visually in this film, but it just feels as if the film is pandering to us as she is totally normalized. It’s as if Theron’s Sanders is supposedly more believable or more conflicted because she looks exhausted and pale. I also found myself wondering if “In the Valley of Elah” is any less heavy-handed in its message than “Crash.” While I felt negatively manipulated in the latter film, this film also does a nice, smoothly manipulative job of proving the points it wants to make. The difference for me is, I’m in total agreement with the message of “In the Valley of Elah” so maybe I’ve actually fallen victim to the same problems I had with “Crash.” Still, another part of me just feels that “In the Valley of Elah” is a much better film.
Across the board, the acting is amazing. Tommy Lee Jones continues to be one of the finest leading men of our time and his performance is nuanced to the point of effortlessness. While he must come to grips with the loss of his son, he also is forced to come to grips with the hand he may have played in it as well as the hand the military plays. In many ways, they’re one and the same. Theron is also excellent as a detective who may or may not have earned her way to her position but is forced to prove her worth every step of the way. Supporting actors Jason Patric and Susan Sarandon are rather underwritten but their simplistic seeming roles still add much needed depth and layering to Theron and Jones’s characters.
“In the Valley of Elah” is one of the best films of 2007 but I wonder if it’s difficult message will turn away filmgoers. Haggis has constructed a very bitter pill that needs to be swallowed, especially by hardcore pro-war Americans. He adds a heavy dose of humanism to the practicality and duty involved with the military and, specifically, in fighting a war. In a world where mass murdering terrorists still roam un-captured and New Orleans and the Gulf Coast still sit in destruction, it’s clear Americans really don’t like dealing with the truth. If we did, issues like the aforementioned as well as the elephant in the room touched upon by “In the Valley of Elah” would be discussed and remedied.