September 27, 2007

REVIEW: In The Valley of Elah (B)

Background: Remember this? Tommy Lee Jones is hoping you don't, but just to make sure he's followed it up with roles in The 3 Burials..., In the Valley of Elah, and the upcoming No Country For Old Men. The guy plays a craggly, suffering old sheriff/cop/marshal with a drawl like nobody else. Elah was written and directed by Oscar darling Paul Haggis (Million Dollar Baby, Crash) and also stars Charlize Theron, who can never resist a chance to try to look ugly (Monster, North Country). This film, one of many this fall indirectly or directly involving the War in Iraq, was apparently inspired by a 2004 Playboy article (isn't that a punchline?) about Army soldier Richard Davis, who disappeared after returning from his first tour of duty in Iraq. With Elah, Haggis has now written three war screenplays in a row (Flags of Our Fathers, Letters From Iwo Jima), and he apparently wrote this film with Clint Eastwood in mind for Jones's part. Eastwood can decently play a craggly, suffering old sheriff/cop/marshal, but he doesn't have a drawl and reportedly turned down the role because he thought it would be a little much to make 4 movies in 3 years with the same guy. Or maybe I just thought that would be a little much, despite the fact that it works for Scorsese & DiCaprio.

Synopsis: In 2004, scraggly Hank Deerfield (Jones) receives a phone call notifying him that his son, just back from Iraq, is AWOL. Like any concerned parent, he heads to the Army base from which his son vanished. There he meets his son's unit, none of whom can shed any light on his whereabouts. Jones files a missing persons report at the local police station, where rookie detective Emily Sanders (Theron) is stuck solving animal cruelty cases. After a rocky start, the two develop an awkward relationship after the stabbed, dismembered, charred, half-eaten body of Deerfield's son is found in a nearby field (and shown in detail). Deerfield, who happens to be a retired MP, works with Sanders to try to solve the mystery of his son's death. Suspicion is initially directed toward Mexican drug cartels before finding its way to Deerfield's closest army brethren, three of whom were last seen with him on the night of his death. Deerfield, now living out of a motel, studies corrupted cellphone videos his son took from Iraq, has harsh phone conversations with his wife (Sarandon), and discusses the fog of war with a number of soldiers. Confessions are made and retracted until you lose count (and your nerve), but eventually the case is closed and we all learn something new about being in war: it's bad.

I Loved:
+ Tommy Lee Jones - excellent in balancing Deerfield's anger, frustration, and forgiveness.

I Liked:
+ The subtle musical score.
+ The symbolism behind the picture Deerfield's son took with his cellphone.

I Disliked:
- The dragging pace of the film - this could have been 20 minutes shorter and still kept its meaning.
- The
gloomy gray throughout 90% of the scenes - this isn't Gotham, and the emotional effect is unrealistic and unnecessary in a film that's already so depressing.

I Hated:
- The exaggerated chauvinism within the police department - that may be based on her reality, but it was annoying, repetitive, and added little to the story.
- The cellphone video quality - I understand it's corrupted, and it's from a cellphone, but the audio static drove me crazy.
- The guy sitting behind me in the theater, who for 10 minutes not only jingled his change in his pocket but actually rubbed the coins together, making an incredibly grating sound. By my estimate, he had 13 pennies, 6 nickels, 8 dimes, and 6 quarters. Thanks for taking me out of the most important part of the movie...

Writing - 8
Acting - 9
Production - 7
Emotional Impact - 9
Music - 5
Significance - 5

Total: 43/50= 86% = B

Last Word: Though framing its anti-war argument around the original story of a veteran's mysterious disappearance back at home, In The Valley of Elah doesn't really rise above other movies involving Iraq. Its best parts are because of the solid acting and some of Haggis's writing, but the fundamental lesson - that sending innocent boys to war is like sending David up against Goliath, could probably have been told in a more powerful way. I think this film just got away from Haggis as he spent way too much time on the dull details of a murder case. Instead of adapting the story of Richard Davis and trying to teach a lesson on war, he could have come up with a much better and original plot with more interesting characters. Oh well, maybe somebody else will. In the meantime, it's nice to see Tommy Lee Jones back doing what no one else can: being old and scraggly with a drawl.

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