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.