If your life's quest is to keep arm's length from any piece of popular entertainment that deals with the Iraq War, then now is the time to perfect your bowling game. For the next four months, the multiplexes will be overrun with Iraq expeditions, with "In the Valley of Elah" the first big horse out of the gate.
A former military lifer, Hank (Tommy Lee Jones) has received word that his son, Mike (Jonathan Tucker), is AWOL from the Iraqi conflict. Traveling to the military base to find him, Hank meets Emily (Charlize Theron), a frustrated cop who takes an interest in Mike's disappearance after witnessing Hank's sharp investigative skills. Unable to crack the military powers that be, Hank's faith in a system he once trusted without question is extinguished, leaving him angered and furious for answers others are unable or simply refuse to provide.
"Elah" is actually writer/director Paul Haggis's follow-up to his 2005 award-winning, blockbusting, audience-dividing smash "Crash." There seems to be two camps on "Crash:" one side couldn't stand a note, found Haggis to be a hack of the highest order, and retch at the thought of a movie that even entertains the notion of profundity. Then there are those like me, who adored Haggis's epic take on the small connections of life, executed in an operatic way that spoke miles about the human condition. "Crash" thrilled me with its elegant obviousness. "Elah" is the tonal polar opposite.
While it shares a curiosity with entrenched behaviors like "Crash," "Elah" heads more into the theme of dehumanization. It's a film about the acidic effects of conflict and honor, taking heavy cues from the current Iraq situation to embellish a traditional murder-mystery. Haggis skeptics will surely find plenty to squawk about as "Elah" poses tough questions challenging military duty; but I can assure everyone reading this that "Elah" is a different beast than "Crash" in more than just setting and performance. The new film is a creased, weathered creation with a deeply somber intent.
Inspired by news reports, "Elah" barely musters the energy to go about its business. That's not suggesting fatigue, but merely reluctance to find the center of the mystery. Tommy Lee Jones delivers one of those performances only Jones can give; envisioned with a shoulders-slumped tenacity, Jones's Hank is a steamroller of procedural might, only blunted by his civilian status and fear of the inevitable. The actor lends "Elah" these tiny performance miracles, perhaps assuming the weight of articulation Haggis can't always provide. Matching him well is Theron - her Emily another character assuming unfortunate cultural debt for being a woman in the man's world of small town police work - but it's Jones, peering out from all-too-knowing hound-dog eyes, that "Elah" draws its power and sadness from. It's a remarkable performance.
As a mystery, "Elah" does just fine prodding the audience to go along with its twisted tale of innocence lost. As Hank embarks on the hunt for clues, Haggis preserves that experience, slowing pulling the noose tighter as the characters slip closer and closer to the truth. "Elah" is only freckled with Iraq commentary, as Haggis lines the plot with visuals of hellish war zone conditions from Mike's corrupted camera to give viewers a glimpse of the conflict, while employing Hank's fall from military grace to underline the loss felt on the home front. Haggis doesn't push the same buttons he did on "Crash," dialing down preaching for displays of genuine dismay. That is, until the final shot, which reaches for a symbolic sleeper hold and fails in a manner the rest of the picture is careful to avoid.
There's no question that "In the Valley of Elah" is a more modest effort from Haggis, perhaps pulling back on his ambition throttle to better engage the masses with a subject few will want to visit. It's a difficult picture dealing directly with misery and misfortune, but it has much to say about affairs of the family and the state of the union, presented in an unsettlingly peaceful manner few in the genre would dare emulate.
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