Writer/director Paul Haggis seems to be a hit or miss kinda guy. His last outing wearing those dual hats was 2005’s Crash, a film some (including myself) claimed one of the best of that year, but that others derided for lacking subtlety and being manipulative and poorly paced. Reaction to In the Valley of Elah is likely to be similar.
Unlike Crash, which featured multiple interwoven storylines with no clear lead, Tommy Lee Jones is the unmistakeable focus of the film as former military policeman Hank Deerfield, father to a son serving on active duty in Iraq. The time is 2004, Bush and Kerry are battling it out for the Presidency, and the war in Iraq is going badly. When he is called by a soldier from son Mike’s base to inform him Mike is AWOL, Hank sets out to find him before the Army officially designates him as ‘Absent’. Hank believes in the Armed Forces and he believes in America: setting out urgently to drive all night to track down his son, he still takes time to teach the caretaker of a local school that flying the flag upside down is a signal of dire distress in instances of extreme danger.
Haggis seemingly prefers to tell his stories in a complicated manner – in Crash he unified his argument about race through many marginally related story threads, and in In the Valley of Elah , although the focus is naturally much tighter, he introduces several layers of artifice and unnecessary subplots. The most glaring is the use of the video clips caught on Mike’s cellphone during his tour – the files are corrupted, you see, and the tech whiz Hank pays to extract them takes his time in doing so. That they are drip-fed to Hank (and the audience) but are used to further his (and our) understanding of what his son went through in Iraq seems synthetic. Further, Hank is (rather bizarrely) invited to have dinner at the home of the detective investigating his Missing Persons case, seemingly only so he can be forced to spout an unnaturally blunt allegory in the guise of a bedtime story for the detective’s young son.
If not for Tommy Lee Jones’ excellent performance, In the Valley of Elah may have sunk completely into mediocrity – Jones had a big year in 2007 with this and No Country for Old Men reminding us of his great skill. He carries Hank with dignity, allowing him to process the new information about his son and the experience of being a soldier in modern combat and come out the other side less sure of his lifelong convictions. Jones is supported by Charlize Theron in a role of limited range, and Susan Sarandon plays Hank’s long-suffering wife.
I have previously been critical of the use of the American flag in film, given it is most often used as shorthand to convey a certain message and, therefore, often represents laziness on behalf of the filmmakers rather than the qualities they feel it possesses. For much of this film Haggis’ use of this imagery is appropriate and based in reality, but the final sequence falls prey to the same problems engendered by so many other films that rely on this visual crutch. That his point had been well and truly made far before he so bluntly underlined it seems to have escaped him.Rating: