In the Valley of Elah
Rated R, 124 min. Directed by Paul Haggis. Starring Tommy Lee Jones, Charlize Theron, Jason Patric, Susan Sarandon, James Franco, Barry Corbin, Josh Brolin, Frances Fisher.
Don’t be fooled by its two-hour running time; In the Valley of Elah is really three movies in one: one fine, another brilliant, the third neither fine nor brilliant. First and foremost, it’s an old-fashioned police procedural, with all the requisite battles over jurisdiction, squad-room ribbing, minor miracles of deduction, and investigative red herrings that make solving crimes in the movies such a kick. Hank Deerfield (Jones), a no-nonsense retired military officer, drives from Tennessee to New Mexico to investigate the disappearance and murder of his son, Mike, who, only days before, returned from a tour of duty with the army in Iraq. With the help of a local detective (an incurably mopey Theron) and his son’s video phone, Deerfield stumbles into a world of drugs, cover-ups, and post-traumatic stress disorder that exposes the ugly truth behind our country’s recent Mesopotamian misadventure. Then there’s movie No. 2, the one about the painful reality fathers have to face when their sons don’t become the men they raised them to be or, even worse, when they do. It’s a joy watching the grizzled, dyspeptic Jones slowly come to the realization that, no matter who killed Mike, his son was most likely an intolerable SOB who very well may have deserved what he got. Was he a drug mule for local gangsters? Did he threaten his platoon buddies? Did he torture civilians in Iraq? It doesn’t really matter. What matters is that the boy has become the man his military father made him, and he’s now gone and blown up in everyone’s face. This is Haggis returning to the emotional terrain of his first great triumph, Million Dollar Baby, which was at its best when exposing all the tiny disappointments and offhanded salvations that humanity can offer. If Elah had stopped there, content to watch Jones sink deeper and deeper into a morass of his own guilt and disillusionment and his wife’s (Sarandon) long-pent-up opprobrium (Mike is the second of two military sons she’s had to bury), the movie would have been a bit of brilliance. But this is Haggis, and anyone who’s seen Crash knows Haggis never met a sociological hammer he didn’t like wielding. So instead of a nice, clean movie about parental regret we’re forced to suffer through an unnecessary biblical metaphor stretched way past its limits of applicability and a bit with an American flag that turns Deerfield from a human being suffering a crisis of conscience into a hollow symbol of a country in a state of political disenchantment.
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