- Rated R
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All photos © Warner Independent
Reviewed by David Medsker
n the interest of full disclosure, you should know that I hated “Crash,” Paul Haggis’ Oscar-winning 2005 drama about racism in modern society, with the white-hot fire of a thousand suns. (Which, for the record, is actually less than L.A. gossip blog Defamer hated it.) I understand what Haggis was trying to say – that everyone’s a little bit racist, to quote the “Avenue Q” song – and to be honest, I don’t disagree with him. What I take issue with, however, is his delivery. Would you like an anvil to the head, or a baseball bat to the kneecaps? Make your choice, racist.
Thankfully, Haggis’ latest, “In the Valley of Elah,” involves much less swinging of his patented Big Message Stick (though make sure you’re wearing a helmet during the movie’s final shot). And if the words “Paul Haggis Iraq War drama” send shivers down your spine, fear not: the movie is actually a military whodunit, and the Iraq War is a supporting character of sorts. Picture “A Few Good Men” without the powerful third act (more on that later), and you’re close.
The movie stars Tommy Lee Jones as Hank Deerfield, a retired Army MP who learns that his son Mike (Jonathan Tucker) has gone AWOL mere weeks after returning from duty in Iraq. Hank drives from his Tennessee home to the New Mexico base where Mike is stationed to learn more about his son’s disappearance, but instead of answers, he receives nothing but condolences and wide-eyed concern for his son. Hank then turns to the local police, and receives the reluctant help of Detective Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron), who soon suspects that Mike may not be missing but rather the victim of foul play.
Haggis has some serious issues with our nation’s law enforcement, rivaling only N.W.A. in terms of his sheer hatred for those who serve and protect. Once again, the police are portrayed as either chauvinist (every one of Sanders’ colleagues, and her boss, thinks she slept her way to her current job), or flat-out lazy (the police belittle anyone who asks for their help). Even Theron’s character, who is supposed to be the hero, is smeared by Haggis’ bias, since Sanders would have gotten nowhere without the assistance of Jones, a former military investigator. Haggis’ “F*** da Police” attitude, however, is the least of the movie’s concerns. Despite a rocky premise, the movie keeps the viewer interested, if not engrossed. When the final act arrives, however, the wheels fall off. The resolution of the story is shockingly anti-climactic, not to mention hollow. To make matters worse, Haggis sets up a Big Reveal early on, and when it arrives, it too falls with a thud.
The presence of Susan Sarandon as Hank’s wife is more amusing than anything, since she played a MILF in “Mr. Woodcock” just last week, and here, she’s a long-suffering hausfrau who’s onscreen for five minutes, a waste of her formidable talents. Jones is, well, Jones, the lovable crank, while Theron plays ugly by parting her hair down the middle. To be fair, she does the best she can with the role, but her character is given very little depth, something that hampered “Crash” as well. Haggis is much more concerned with overarching theme of his movies than the details, but what he doesn’t realize is that his lack of attention to detail (dumb cops, half-baked confession, dangling thread after dangling thread) undermines his point before he has a chance to even make it.
Even the title of “In the Valley of Elah” is misleading. It’s a reference to where David fought Goliath, and while you can see the pieces for that metaphor here and there, the movie has no David and it has no Goliath. Keystone cops and Orwellian bureaucrats, yes, but no hero and no clear-cut villain. The whole is never more than the sum of the parts when dealing in biting social commentary: everything counts, not just the Big Message.
Single-Disc DVD Review:
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from reviewing movies, it’s this: unless a Warner Bros. film makes a killing at the box office, you probably shouldn’t expect a wealth of special features on the DVD. The single-disc release of “In the Valley of Elah” continues this tradition, and despite a poor showing of extras, the one that does appear is actually quite good. Combining interviews with cast members and the real-life parents of Richard Davis (the murdered U.S. soldier on which the film is based), the 43-minute making-of featurette is one part documentary and one part behind-the-scenes fluff piece. From the serious political discussions with the young actors who portray the other four soldiers in the film, to an unintentionally funny interview with a group of stripper extras, “After Iraq & Coming Home” delivers exactly what you’d expect… and much more.