Paul Haggis’ newest film “In the Valley of Elah” is sure to be an Oscar contender.
With three great leading performances, great writing and great direction, it must be recognized by the Academy. But will it suffer a backlash from “Crash”, Haggis’ last film as a writer – director?
I don’t understand it, but there are people who cringe at the very mention of the film “Crash”. I was riveted for every minute of the running time and was glad the film was awarded Best Picture status. After “Crash”, Haggis went on to write, or rewrite, a number of high profile films, making them better in the process. “Million Dollar Baby”, “Sands of Iwo Jima”, “Flags of our Fathers”, “Casino Royale” and others all passed through Haggis’ computer and were given the experience of the writer’s skill. Now, he returns with his newest effort and it proves he is deserving of all of the accolades he receives.
Hank (Tommy Lee Jones), a retired Sergeant with the Military Police, now spends his days hauling gravel and sharing a quiet life with his wife Joan (Susan Sarandon). One day, he receives a call informing him that his youngest son, Michael has gone AWOL. But his son is in Iraq. No, he returned stateside four days ago with his platoon. Hank calls his son’s cell phone and gets voice mail. He checks his e-mail, nothing. He makes a few calls. Nothing. Something isn’t right. His son would call him, let him know if something was wrong. He drives to Fort Rudd and begins to make inquiries. He meets some of Michael’s buddies, including Bonner, Leo and their Sergeant (James Franco). He also spots Michael’s cell phone among his son’s belongings and surreptitiously grabs it. Hank can’t make anything of it, so he contacts a local telephone guy who offers to try to retrieve some of the video on it. It will take a while, but he can e-mail the files as they are reconstructed. With each inquiry, Hank comes to a dead end so he decides to ask for the help of the local police and meets Detective Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron). A recent promotion to the Detective squad has earned her nothing but the scorn of her fellow detectives, but she tries to do a good job, tries to help the public. Hank and Emily meet with Head MP, Lt. Kirklander (Jason Patric) and everyone is very sympathetic, but no one can help. Then a body is found, dismembered and burned beyond recognition. It is Michael and Hank has to call his wife and tell her the news. Hank tries to find out what happened, but continues to meet a number of hurdles. Frustrated with her job, Emily realizes she might be able to help Hank, so she starts to look into things. Hank is persistent and uncovers things no one wants to hear, including himself.
Haggis has proven time and time again he is a very good writer. Before he made a name for himself in film, he worked in television and created a short-lived, but extremely dynamic television series called “EZ Streets”. The show explored the lives of a group of cops (led by Ken Olin) and a group of crooks (led by Joe Pantoliano and Jason Gedrick). The story line was outstanding, really delving into these characters lives. But it was too bleak and the gorgeous cinematography, which seemed to get more monochromatic and gray, probably didn’t help. It didn’t last long.
One of the key things that makes “Crash” such a great film are the various observances he makes about each of the characters. They don’t necessarily have a lot to do with the story, but they make the characters more real. If anything, “Crash” suffers from too many faces, making each of them nothing more than a supporting performance. The film lacks a strong central character, to shepherd the film, and to bring us into the story. But this is also another thing that makes “Crash” stand out. Because there are so many faces, so many points of view, we see so many different aspects of life in the community depicted.
In “Elah”, Haggis focuses on three characters, giving the film a strong, singular point of view. As we watch Hank and his wife interact, we see the deep and abiding love they have for one another, but they have been married a long time. During this time, they have fought, had disagreements, said the wrong things, but have also made up. They no longer have to say, “I love you” or kiss each other constantly to show their affection and love. They are life partners and know what each other is thinking, what each other needs. She barely objects when Hank announces he is going to drive to Fort Rudd and look for Michael. She knows he would do nothing else. When he calls her, to tell her they have found Michael’s body, Haggis shows us Sarandon’s character from behind. She is crying, as we would expect and she fights with Hank. The camera slowly pulls back to show her sitting on the floor, a green carpet underneath, the telephone stand on it’s side, a casualty of her grief.
As we spend more and more time with Emily, we learn little things about her as well. Her fellow detectives seem to regard her with open hostility. Is this because she is new to the squad? Later, in the film, an offhand comment may provide the clue. Emily is also a single mom with a young son. Frustrated with how the investigation is going, she invites Hank over to dinner and his influence on their home is felt after he leaves. The derision she receives from her fellow detectives seems to drive her to look further and further into the mystery surrounding Michael. That, and the endless bureaucracy she faces, both within her department and from the Army.
All three of these actors turn in outstanding performances.
Something I realized while watching “Elah” is that I have grown to appreciate Tommy Lee Jones more with each and every performance. With the exception of his unfortunate starring role in the dreadful comedy “Man of the House”, he is always, if nothing else, at least interesting. Usually, he helps elevate whatever film he is in. He almost always plays a strong, silent type, generally a cowboy or law enforcement official, allowing him to maintain this persona. But he does this really well. It is a bit like watching Gary Cooper in his films; he always played the same type of character and made the films he was in more interesting. Not a lot of variation between roles, but some really good performances. Tommy Lee Jones has played a lot of characters that are at odds with the world; the men he plays are usually sensible, intelligent men who are perplexed by the events surrounding them. This perplexed nature leads him to act.
In “Elah”, Jones plays Hank, a quiet family man living in small town Tennessee. A gravel hauler, there isn’t a lot of excitement in his life. But when he realizes something is wrong about his son’s disappearance, his previous career as an MP for the Army kicks in and he starts to ask questions. Hank is a man familiar with the system, allowing him to see the bureaucracy for what it is. He isn’t surprised that he doesn’t get the answers he needs or wants. But when this happens, he starts to work around the rules. When this doesn’t necessarily get the answers either, he becomes angry and this tends to help make people listen, to get him what he wants.
As Jones and Sarandon interact, they portray a married couple with a lot of anniversaries behind them. Sarandon is only in a handful of scenes, but each of these helps to make her character indelible and also helps to make Jones’ character more convincing. Early on, Hank and Joan talk on the phone. They have been together so long, they don’t need to say a lot sweet nothings, but we get the idea they do love each other.
Charlize Theron does a very good job as the new Detective on the squad. She puts up with a lot of hazing, and even seems to be incredibly fed up with job; her fellow detectives send a lot of pet related cases to her. But she perseveres, even if this treatment causes her to be a little gruff with some of the people who really need her help. Including Hank. With her hair pulled back and very little make-up on, she is clearly trying to downplay the fact she is female. Yet, her fellow detectives can’t overlook this. There is a nasty rumor floating around and it won’t go away.
As she begins to help Hank, she becomes as frustrated as he is. But this makes her even more determined to find out the truth. Every time she speaks, Theron seems to imbue Emily with a deep down fatigue. She is a single mom, working long hours as a detective, and has to put up with a lot at work. She is very tired. And this leads her to overlook some things, or to brush some things aside. Until Hank causes her to refocus on the priorities.
The real mark of a great writer is the ability to write something about one subject and to slowly, but surely lead the focus to another. Haggis does this and does it well. As Hank and Emily slowly uncover the events surrounding Michael’s disappearance, we learn things about Hank, and Joan, and their relationship. And also things about Emily. But as Hank becomes more persistent, he also starts to learn things about himself and his son that he doesn’t necessarily want to hear. Better yet, this change becomes more impactful because it sneaks up on us, while we are watching the film. There are hints to it throughout, but we don’t see it coming until the full impact of it is hitting us in the chest and the tears are starting to flow from our eyes.
“In the Valley of Elah” is a very moving film featuring some outstanding performances. It isn’t a perfect film; a subplot with Emily’s son doesn’t really pay off, but it is easily one of the best films of the year.