Thursday, February 7, 2008

In the Valley of Elah *

Director: Paul Haggis
Cast: Tommy Lee Jones, Charlize Theron
Susan Sarandon, Jason Patric, Josh Brolin

Someone has got to tell Paull Haggis that it's time for him to stop oversimplifying life and people.
His newest venture as writer/director feels like what would've happened to the immigrants from "Crash", if they'd joined the army and gone to Iraq.
Tommy Lee Jones plays Hank, a Vietnam veteran, who lost one son in the army and is faced with potential tragedy when he learns that his son Mike (Jonathan Tucker) has gone AWOL after returning from Iraq.
After going through some bureaucratic troubles regarding jurisdiction, he teams with detective Emily Sanders (Theron) to discover what happened to his son, in the process learning about how much the army changed since he retired, how much of his son's life remained unknown to him and the emotional consequences brought on by war.
What begins as a promising, if necessarily, desolate account of a country unprepared to face the return of the men it sent off to fight for freedom, quickly reveals itself as another shallow attempt at depth that has become Haggis' trademark.
Just what is this man's necessity to make everything a complete extreme? For example when Hank encounters a school worker who is raising the US flag, he just has to ask him his nationality, which turns out to be El Salvadorean, later Hank becomes suspicious of a soldier because he is Mexican and must have connections with drug dealers.
While we never come to think that Hank himself is a bigot, Haggis' need to remind us of the multicultural population of his country make for an awkward statement. He doesn't need to portray an example of every minority to remind us of their existence.
Add to this a Biblical reference (the Valley of Elah is where David fought, and defeated, Goliath) and Haggis has got himself a way to please every pseudo thinker out there.
Just what the metaphor has to do with the movie is never quite clear (is it about Iraq and the USA? about the army making the investigation tough? about justice vs injustice?). But hey, if you got a spiritual reference you can wash your hands from the responsibility of having to justify it. (Best represented in an unintentionally funny line where Hank says the story is true because "it's in the Koran").
Later we have his take on Theron's character; the lone woman detective (who is also a single mother) in a man's world. She is disrespected, has a tough time being taken seriously and has to cook dinner and read a bedtime story to her son every day. But perhaps it's a nod to Theron's capacity of playing these roles, where her beauty should repel the person she's portraying, but she's become quite good at it. Nor the tomboy or the sex icon, she underplays her scenes, perhaps out of disinterest, but maybe just maybe, out of her seemingly growing capacities as an actress. She makes the most out of cliché quips and sometimes achieves the look of exhaustion and disappointment one would detect in someone like Emily.
The one reason why the film remains watchable is Tommy Lee Jones. His rugged face could've pretty much expressed everything we would need to know about Hank.
But the actor digs deeper and comes up with a slowly evolving performance. Hank begins as a movie character, but Jones turns him into the unsung voice of parents everywhere who are just beginning to cope with the consequences of their vote, their children's decisions or their blind belief in a system that doesn't care about them.
Jones makes this conversion feel transcendental.
If it was up to Haggis he would've made it about someone who goes from being a Republican to a Democrat.

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