3½ stars (out of four)
A lot of very good films have a distinct drop-off point, usually occasioned when the gods of character are shoved aside for the gods of plot. "In the Valley of Elah" is one of those very good pictures.
Writer/director Paul Haggis was the Oscar-winner behind "Crash," that wild-eyed topical panorama of L.A. racism up and down the socioeconomic ladder. I was not a fan. While many of the performers (Terrence Howard, Matt Dillon, Sandra Bullock) managed to humanize a schematic narrative, I'm still not sure what Haggis was really trying to say with it, other than people are complicated (though what we saw on screen relied on whopping reversals and improbable changes of heart) and that our prejudices can and probably should come back to haunt us.
"In the Valley of Elah" has a few "Crash" moments, in which Haggis cannot resist summing it all up. The final shot is a perfect example (not to be detailed here). You can feel it coming, and suddenly a transformed character is doing something that does not feel plausible, no matter how the events leading up to the ending have changed him. Nonetheless Tommy Lee Jones is marvelous in the film. He has one scene in particular, a simple two-person encounter, that's as good as it gets in the realm of American screen acting.
Jones plays Hank Deerfield, a retired military policeman living in rural Tennessee with his wife, Joan (Susan Sarandon, whose very presence, for better or worse, connotes simmering outrage over the war in Iraq). One of their sons has already died in combat. Now they get word that their second son, just back from active duty in Iraq, has gone AWOL.
From the outset, Haggis sets up his story, which was inspired by a Ft. Benning, Ga., case, as a murder mystery. Hank travels to the base (the film was shot mostly in and around Albuquerque) and starts asking questions. A body, stabbed and dismembered, is discovered in a desolate patch of land owned by the military. (Cinematographer Roger Deakins stresses this blanched-out desolation, keeping the colors muted.) With the initially reluctant aid of local cop Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron), who has seen grim examples of how post-traumatic stress can affect soldiers re-entering their American lives, Hank becomes the conduit for the audience. A bull-headed, often unthinkingly racist man, he inches closer to the facts of the case and to what led to this bad end.
Key narrative information is revealed through cell phone camera images shot in Iraq by Hank's son. The scrambled, tantalizing footage makes us want to know more, which is the point. Haggis counterbalances Hank's story with that of Emily, whose ambiguous relationship with her superior (Josh Brolin) has caused her all sorts of grief with her fellow cops. This isn't the most compelling part of "In the Valley of Elah," but Theron handles it with steely aplomb. She seems to have taken Tommy Lee Jones acting lessons in doing as little as possible, as naturally as possible.
The scene for the ages belongs to Jones, whose bearing and naturally taciturn quality captures a certain breed of military man, visited in his hotel room by a soldier. Hank knows--fears, at least--why he has a visitor, who has news regarding the missing son. Excusing himself, Hank retreats for a moment into his hotel bathroom to dab a shaving cut with a piece of toilet paper. Alone, Hank allows himself a moment of despair. The look in Jones' eyes is really something, all the more effective because the actor doesn't often drop his mask of stoic cool.
Haggis is careful not to demonize or patronize the soldiers on screen, which puts him several thousand miles ahead of what Brian De Palma does in the crude polemic "Redacted." (Both films made their North American debuts this week at the Toronto International Film Festival.) Haggis' title refers to the Biblical valley where David slew Goliath. In one scene Hank relays that story to the cop's young son, and you shudder to think how another actor, in a lesser film, might have sentimentalized it.
Like Charles Fuller's "A Soldier's Story" or, a little further down the seriousness scale, Aaron Sorkin's "A Few Good Men" (both originally written for the stage), "In the Valley of Elah" investigates various mind-sets of young men trained for battle. Haggis' particular issue is the post-traumatic stress disorders too little discussed in the time of the war of "our choosing," as President Bush once put it. Haggis does not play this situation falsely because he's writing about people, not position papers or thesis arguments.
There is a drop-off point, though, and a few scenes near the end belong to a more conventional breed of topical dramatic filmmaking. Surely, too, Haggis realizes that the closing ballad with lyrics referring to "baby's first breath" and the like is pretty icky. His shrewd and sorrowful film, in the main, knows better than to pander.
'In the Valley of Elah'
Written and directed by Paul Haggis; photographed by Roger Deakins; edited by Jo Francis; music by Mark Isham; production design by Laurence Bennett; produced by Patrick Wachsberger, Steven Samuels, Darlene Caamano Loquet, Haggis and Laurence Becsey. A Warner Independent Pictures release; opens Friday. Running time: 2:00. MPAA rating: R (for violent and disturbing content, language and some sexuality/nudity).
Hank Deerfield - Tommy Lee Jones
Emily Sanders - Charlize Theron
Joan Deerfield - Susan Sarandon
Chief Buchwald - Josh Brolin
Sgt. Carnelli - James Franco
Evie - Frances Fisher