Monday, September 24, 2007

In the Valley of Elah

In one of the final scenes of Paul Haggis’ new, breathtaking film, In the Valley of Elah, Tommy Lee Jones talks with a kid fresh home from Iraq. If you watched the scene by itself, as an award clip for example, it would resonate. But after two hours of remarkable drama, the scene will collapse in your heart. It will stay in your mind, days after you leave the theatre.

The movie is filled with conversations just like this one. You will marvel at each interaction that the characters allow themselves to share.

Hank Deerfield, a retired military police officer, learns that his son is home from his tour in Iraq, but has since gone missing. Without hesitation, Hank sets out for a cross country trip to his son’s military base. A drive that will take two days his wife tells him, “Yeah, for some people,” Hank insists.

Soon after Hank arrives in town, the chopped up remains of a charred body are discovered, which inevitably belong to Hank’s beloved son. There is a question of whether jurisdiction belongs to the military or the police. At any rate, Hank believably manages to be included in both cases. With his razor-sharp instinct intact along with several retrieved videos taken by his son in Iraq, Hank begins to realize the terror and torture that his boy lived through.

Crash, my favorite film of 2005, was Haggis’ last directorial effort. It earned him a couple Oscars and a whole lot of berating. People dismissed that film as too preachy, too much too quick, an overly-sentimental mess. With In the Valley of Elah, Haggis couldn’t have gone in a better, more diverse direction. The scenes are slow-paced and long-winded; the look is authentic and dirty, due to the brilliant Roger Deakins’ stunning cinematography. The man can give you a remarkably unsettling feeling the way he lights a room or imposes the shadow of a soldier in a doorway. The cold, isolated roads in the film are reminiscent of the endless, snow-covered lands that he shot for Fargo.

You won’t hear any overbearingly distracting score from Mark Isham, a wise decision based on similar, didactic moments in Crash.

It’s hard to call the performances in this film acting. Mostly stripped of makeup, the actors are exposed in a variety of ways. Jones, in the best performance of a long, subtly brilliant career, is beyond praise. With little words, Jones can express everything he is thinking from his weathered, tense face. His low, gravel voice will quickly get your attention in anticipation for what he may say next. As a polite, ex-military man, Hank wouldn’t dare speak to a woman while he is wearing just an undershirt, even if his white, button down shirt is not fully dry, he has to have the damp shirt on before a conversation can take place.

Equally as good in this film as her Oscar winning role four years ago in Monster, Charlize Theron gives an astounding, restrained performance. As a small town detective who deals with daily bullshit from co-workers, she manages to remain a caring mother to her young son, given the lack of respect she receives at her job. Haggis gives her character something extra here, that at first does not feel needed, but watch her eyes as she sits, kneeled down next to a bathtub, her face guilty yet relieved.

Susan Sarandon, as Hank’s wife, has little yet memorable screen time, mostly over the phone with Jones. Haggis writes their conversations with an aged demeanor: she knows she married a military man and this is how they have lived for years and certainly years to come.

After such a widely unique ensemble in Crash, it’s no surprise that fine actors like Jason Patric, Josh Brolin and James Franco show up for wonderfully controlled supporting turns.

People who call this film an anti-Iraq movie aren’t getting the picture. It isn’t anti anything, it is real and honest and shows the true horrors that war can inflict on a human being, long after they have come home. Think of the war movies you have seen. Most of them, including several great ones, rarely show the horrific aspect of coming home. When the changes of war inflict gruesome nightmares that eliminate the safety a soldier should be feeling. A near-end confessional scene grasps this concept shockingly, it is truly haunting and will leave you speechless.

What does the title refer to? I’ll never tell, but the way in which it is delivered encompasses Jones’ Oscar caliber performance. Give credit to Haggis, for directing his actors so passionately and for crafting a quiet, bold and beautiful film. War stays with you and so will this movie. A