Friday, October 12, 2007

In the Valley of Elah (2007)

I tried to go into this one with an open mind. I really did. I disliked Crash, but that was mostly because it deserved to be forgotten and swept under the rug alongside North Country and House of Sand and Fog and instead won the film industry's top accolades. Still, I wanted to give Haggis a second chance. But you know what happened? When the credits came up, I was still pissed off.

Most of In the Valley of Elah is about putting us in close contact with Hank Deerfield, played by Tommy Lee Jones as a stoic, no-nonsense former Army man whose son Mike (Jonathan Tucker, a deer in headlights) has just disappeared after returning from duty in Iraq. [SPOILERS from here] When Mike Deerfield turns up murdered, Hank teams up with local detective Charlize Theron to figure out who done it, which leads to an excursion into the seedy underbelly of life in and around an Army base.

Now this is all well and good, and Jones's very strong performance is coupled with restrained direction from Haggis to make for a compelling portrait of middle America in crisis. The problem is, Haggis can't leave it at that - it's not enough for him to settle for emotional observation, and soon the mechanisms of his plot begin to grind out their payoffs. Mike Deerfield wasn't murdered by local gangs or drug runners, as is initially suspected, but by his own Army buddies in a moment of post-traumatic-stress-induced panic. Yes, his buddies have all become psychopaths thanks to the Iraq war. Also, Mike hit an Iraqi kid with his humvee, in a gratuitous storyline meant to make it clear that he was no innocent victim himself. This is all rendered in standard Hollywood heavy-handed feelbadisms.

In other words, In the Valley of Elah is Paul Haggis saying "I told you so" to red-state America, a dramatization of the idea that the working-class is bearing the brunt of the war effort and the psychological traumas that ensue. These aren't bad ideas to base a movie around, but what really makes the movie obnoxious is how patronizing Haggis's 'shocking' third-act revelations feel. We're meant to be stunned that such all-American soldier boys could commit these atrocities, but all I felt was annoyance at how Haggis was trying to insult my intelligence with his crude manipulations.

I was willing to roll with the movie in those sections when it's actually about genuine emotion and tragedy, but once Haggis starts to unveil his big statements, it all goes downhill fast. There's no honest art here, because Haggis doesn't really like these people - he's masked his scorn in paternalistic condescension. Ultimately for me, this movie was 100 minutes of waiting to see why Tommy Lee Jones would feel the need to raise an American flag upside-down.


cjKennedy said...

***this comment is potentially spoilery***
We saw the same movie and were irritated by the same things for the same reasons, but I came away feeling a little more forgiving becaues I like TLJ so much.

As I've said elsewhere however, that spirit of good feeling and good will has worn off more and more by the day.

The biggest insult for me, and mind you I think I'm pretty well in line with Haggis' take on war, is having the big psychological turn-around by the red stater.

I don't believe for a minute that Hank would've suddenly started questioning war and the military. He went through Vietnam for crapsakes. Don't tell me he didn't see horrible horrible things. But Haggis is trying to manipulate the pro-war red staters by taking one they can identify and turning him.

That's fine but the turn wasn't believable to me. At all.

As a piece of performance, it was frequently great and as a detective story it was solid. As a statement, it was crap. said...

I disagree with your review, Jeff...yet I agree there's a certain heavyhandedness that's offputting. As I mentioned in my review at Film Threat, the same heavy handedness that was in CRASH is here as well...but I was more on board with the message this time around.

I also feel that the Jones character is so stoic and so fenced in that it would take alot to break him of his feelings if he were a real life person. I know many many people who are hardcore Bush supporters who have lost loved ones in Iraq and are still towing the company line. Old habits die hard.

Here's my review:

Jeff McMahon said...

As a detective story I thought it was lacking, too. It was dumb for Haggis to have Tommy Lee Jones some kind of retired super-sleuth who could see things that all the active-duty cops couldn't, and it was dumb for the whole thing to turn on Charlize Theron suddenly doing her job and noticing that signatures didn't match.

And Don, it sounds like we all agre about TLJ's stoic conservatism, which is why the end scene is so annoying - it's something that character would never do.

cjKennedy said...

Perhaps if the detective bits had worked better for you you'd have felt a little more generous towards the film.

As it stands, I think we largely agree on the details.

And don't get me started on how retarded it was at the beginning that he'd pull over and lecture the foreigner on the proper treatment of the flag. Then to come back to it with this crazy capitulation of his core beliefs? No way. said...

No no no...the end scene IS something he would do because he's incapable of showing emotion or verbalizing how he feels. He communicates through symbol in that scene. Maybe it's a lame allegory for America always being the tough, stoic country, ever true to itself and itself only.

If TLJ would have...come home and grabbed Sarandon while crying and saying "What have we donnnnne!?!?!!" THAT would be something he wouldn't do. I think the FUBAR flag was the BEST he could do.

Jeff McMahon said...

No, I still disagree. I think he was the kind of guy who would think to himself 'Boy, it sure sucks that my son is dead and all these other soldiers are murderers. I guess that's the price we pay for freedom'.

Piper said...


I have not seen this and don't intend to because, like you, I am still burning from Crash. Haggis is arrogant and heavy handed in his writing. You want it to feel real, but you feel manipulated and then you feel Haggis patting himself on the back for being so clever.

ShaWn said...

no one would hate haggis if ang lee would have won with brokeback mountain. but truth be told. that movie was worse in heavy handedness.
haggis is not the next great filmmaker. but he is making interesting smaller films about something. what's wrong with that? more filmmakers should try to make a movie about something instead of just being entertainment. disagree with his point of view, sure. but damn. stop with all the hating!

Jeff McMahon said...

Well, since Ang Lee _did_ win (Best Director), your statement isn't completely correct, and I disagree that Lee is 'heavy handed' since his concerns are more about emotional impact on his characters than they are about using his films about platforms for political proclamations. While I am in favor of filmmakers making movies that reflect the modern world and have something on their minds, I also demand that their films not be insulting, heavy-handed, and nonsensical, as both of Haggis's have turned out to be.

Anonymous said...

**spoilers up the yin yang**
I want the time I wasted watching this movie back. The 'statement' is decidedly anti, and not in a logical or even sensible way. Painfully vague, it settles for being anti-everything, nothing in particular, just everything. The support for this claim seems to be that pulling a tour in Iraq automatically results in being transformed into a ticking timebomb. Result: it's only a matter of time before every Iraq vet drowns the dog, drowns the wife, and or stabs their best friend to death. Then, just to make it all the more heinous, they will buy a bucket of chicken with the dead guy's credit card. Oh, but we have to make it clear that selling drugs is still ok. So the ex drug dealer guy is ultimately redeemed (dont ask me how) and is subsequently painted as the only stable guy in the group. But this is only because he is still in denial about the kid getting run over. (How else could they justify buying more of the stuff they were smoking when they made this movie?) Oh yeah, and its all because they had sling shots when they were growing up and wanted to be brave goodguys and all that evil traditional male stuff. Only victims have virtue these days.
Moral of the story: If you let your kid have a slingshot (or god forbid- a BB gun) they will undoubtedly wind up in the Army as a mindless automaton who has to make every bed they sleep in with hospital corners. They'll start wearing nylons under their uniforms, spend half thier pay in mega strip clubs, the other half on drugs (but that parts ok) and only break your heart by killing a friend or by getting killed by a friend. and it wont be thier fault, itll be the Army's fault.
All of this seems to have been inspired more by the underworld of Hollywood than that of the military (never will you find a strip club that nice anywhere near a military base.)
So go ahead and let yer kids blunder along through life scared to death of the dark and the boogey man and make it better later with zanex or riddelin. If you find a stash of weed in thier room, just tell yourself its better than finding a slingshot. In fact pat the kid on the back because now you wont have to pay for zanex anymore.
Forget about that whole male role model stuff. Only females are allowed to have those, because they're gonna need it when they become single moms and get stuck working with a@#holes because they need the money. Thats right, the movie is a rambling pointless mess (even worse than this post.) And just to be a dick I'm gonna go out and buy me a slingshot today. You can breath easy though, I dont have a dog.