Wednesday, November 3, 2010

In the Valley of Elah (2007)

2007 was a rough year for Iraq War movies. There was a glut of them, all of which attempted to say something about the current conflict, but audiences (and critics) mostly resisted them. The problem was there was much politicizing in these films; they screamed "THE WAR IS WRONG!!," and even though this was toward the tail end of the much-disliked Bush Administration, nobody wanted to watch a movie that told them that the war was bad. Even today as troops are being withdrawn from the country, Iraq War films lack popularity; The Hurt Locker may have won six Oscars, including Best Picture, last year, but it was hardly a box office champion.
In the Valley of Elah was one of these Iraq War films. The film tells the story of Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones), a retired military man who's son, Mike, has gone AWOL after returning from a tour of duty in Iraq. Hank drives out to the base to investigate his son's disappearance himself, finding Mike's cell phone and has the media files uncoded. Meanwhile, he runs into, and eventually "cooperates" with a detective (Charlize Theron) who's looking into the case while the military handles it. Unfortunately, Mike's body is found burned and scattered across a field, and the hunt for his killer (or is it killers?) is on.
The film comes from writer/director Paul Haggis, who previously brought us Crash (which, for all the lashings it's received and preachiness, I like) and wrote Million Dollar Baby. Haggis obviously wants to make a statement about the war, and how it dehumanizes soldiers, but he also wants to tell it through the story. So we get grainy, glitchy videos that Mike took in Iraq as transitions, as Hank tries to put the videos and pictures together to figure out what happened over there. It's a gimmick that Haggis uses heavy-handedly, and the videos prove to be distracting and unnecessary. Not that that would change much about the film. It comes off as a cross between an average episode of Law & Order and A Few Good Men, with a rogue Clint Eastwood-type in Hank (seriously, the role feels like it was written for him specifically). Haggis doesn't bring anything new to the screen here, and some of the story twists feel contrived just to ensure a two-hour run time.
Performance-wise, though, the film is elevated by Jones. He's an immensely gifted actor, and it's a testament to his talent that he's able to carry the majority of this film on his shoulders. With a few subtle changes in his face, he manages to speak volumes about his grief and his determination to right the wrong that befell his son, even though he's learning more troubling information about who he really was. And it's just one of several strong performances Jones gave in 2007, including my personal favorite, Sheriff Bell in No Country for Old Men.
But I want to take the time to talk about two other performers here. First up is Theron. I like her, I genuinely do, when she's in the right role. However, I often feel like she strives for "take me seriously" kudos only by making herself "ugly," as she did in Monster and North Country, and as she does again here. I'd hardly call her character ugly, but she's certainly not glamorous. And these are the kinds of performances that Theron does that I don't always like. Indeed, I was not a fan of Monster or her performance. Theron is perfectly capable of delivering great performances without having to bloody up her nose or rub herself in dirt before going before the camera; can't we see that sometime?
Then there's Josh Brolin. Brolin is hands-down one of my favorite actors. And like Jones, 2007 was a big year for him: Grindhouse, American Gangster, and No Country for Old Men, not to mention the Coen Brothers' fantastic entry in the To Each His Own Cinema anthology. Seriously, check it out:
Brolin shows up here as the police chief, and even though he only has two brief scenes, he steals both of them and serves up a wonderful performance in the process. He's not given much to work with, but he manages to take that little a long way with his greasy charisma. His line readings are lively and inspired, and he was easily one of the film's more interesting characters. I actually kind of wish more of the film had been about him.
As far as procedurals go, I suppose one could do worse than In the Valley of Elah. But with it's tacked-on political message and rote storytelling, I can only recommend it for a few good performances.

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