It’s that time of the year where all the Oscar Wannabe films start to trickle out and one of those films that is getting a lot of early buzz is “In the Valley of Elah” a political thriller about the death of an Soldier who is home on leave. This film has all the pedigree to be a best picture, it’s directed by Paul Haggis of Crash and Million Dollar Baby (two films I hated), and stars Tommy Lee Jones (Hank Deerfield), Charlize Theron (Det. Emily Sanders), and Susan Sarandon (Joan Deerfield) – Dammit, Janet!
The problem I have with this film is the problem I have with all of Haggis’ films, this thing is SLOW, meandering, completely quiet when you would think the situation these people are in would call for something else. I mean Hank and Joan just lost their son, so I would have liked to see some more hyperbole. But Hank is a former MP Sergeant so he knows how the military system of justice works. It works slowly and to its own best interest, not necessarily to serve justice.
Haggis wants to have this film be a social commentary on the War in Iraq and it’s effects on returning soldiers and to a certain extent he succeeds by bringing this point home in a subtle fashion, he doesn’t beat you over the head with his political view like he did in Crash. You can see it on the face of the soldiers as Hank walks through the barracks and it’s summed up when one of the characters says, “When I was in Iraq, all I wanted to do was get back home, now that I’m home, all I want to do is go back.” And Hank looks at the young soldier, sympathizing with his plight.
You get the feeling that Hank misses being in the military, everything about the way he carries himself screams it, from the way he walks to the way he carefully shines his shoes and presses his pants. This is a military man, and just like a military man he’s suppressing the grief he feels over the loss of his son by trying to investigate what happened to him.
When he hits the stone wall of the military he turns to the local police and catches the eye of one of the junior detectives, Det. Emily Sanders, who comes to believe that something is seriously wrong tries to help him as best she can. The film does a great job of showing the conflict between local military establishment and its public counterparts.
One of the main issues that I have with this film is how Susan Sarandon’s character is handled, she gives a great performance in what amounts to be a cameo role. This couple just lost there son and the husband just leaves his wife to suffer the loss alone, with no support from him. You can tell that Hank loves his wife and feels her pain, but he’s emotionally distant and throws everything he has to give behind trying to find out what exactly happened to his son.
Tommy Lee Jones gives an Oscar level performance here, but I swear it’s almost a carbon copy performance (and almost the same character) as the one Clint Eastwood played in Million Dollar Baby. Haggis certainly followed the Clint’s Directorial formula here. It’s all very slow, steady camera work, no directorial “tricks,” no background music, very minimalistic, in some ways this style works extremely well, in others it doesn’t make for a very “exciting,” film going experience.
Like I said, this movie feels, stilted, long and at boring. But it’s also at times engaging, worth seeing for Jones’ performance, not much else. If you like Million Dollar Baby you’ll like this, it’s almost the same film – in tone and direction.
Final Grade C
EM Review by
Originally Posted 09/28/07