15 September 2007 | billybobwashere
A less soapy, more plot-driven Haggis drama
There are many people out there who hate the way Paul Haggis made his directorial debut, "Crash," an overly soapy and stupidly-tied-together drama (at least, that's what it felt like to them). Those people don't have to worry. His second major directorial outing, "In the Valley of Elah," avoids both of the "mistakes" (although I'd hardly call them that, seeing as he won Best Picture for what he did with "Crash") that he made last time around. Instead of mixing together multiple stories and having them all connect at the very end, this movie revolves around one main story, a story that seems a lot like the modern-day war version of "Chinatown." Instead of going for simple emotional tugs that he did with "Crash," this film focuses on its understated performances, namely from Tommy Lee Jones, who is superb in this film. It is truly courageous of Paul Haggis to be willing to make some serious changes to the style that won him a Best Picture Academy Award, and even more impressive that he pulls it off very well.
The story revolves around an ex-military officer, Hank Deerfield, who is told that his son, a soldier returning home from Iraq, has gone missing. Jones plays the character in such a quiet way that makes you feel like he thinks he shouldn't be showing emotion, but has a lot of it bottled up inside of him. When he arrives at the military station, people don't seem to want to tell him what happened, and say that they expect he'll come to the base anytime soon (this is portrayed especially well by James Franco, who you may know as Harry Osbourne from the "Spider-man" movies).
Refusing to believe that it's as simple as that, Deerfield is relentless in getting information out of people as to what really happened. It's the way he functioned in the army, and it benefits him greatly as he has to get any information he can out of people. Enter Detective Emily Sanders (played by a very strong Charlize Theron), who at first just wants to get through her job for the day, but soon gets wrapped up in also discovering what really happened to Deerfield's son. The two of them have great chemistry together, as their two different personalities give two different perspectives on what's happening.
The movie works because although it does have quite a few negative things to say about the current war in Iraq, the entire film isn't a two-hour tirade against it. It only makes that message part of the story, and does it in subtle ways (aka the soldiers don't just go "War...it...destroys...you..." but take a lot more time expressing their emotion). Much of the story works like a mixture between the great film "Chinatown" and a much better-acted, better-written version of a really good episode of "CSI." Although there may be a few too many twists and lies circling about, it comes to its conclusion very well in a satisfying way for the audience.
Paul Haggis has an uncanny way of bringing out great performances from all of his actors. The performance of Tommy Lee Jones could be the best of his career, he brings out a much more emotionally quiet side in Charlize Theron than we've before seen, the short performance of Susan Sarandon is particularly powerful, and all of the soldiers are played with a feeling of sincerity. The acting is probably the strongest element of the film, and if there's any "weak part," it would have to be the way Haggis forced out some of the plot twists to make the film as long as he wanted it to be.
Regardless of its few problems, "In the Valley of Elah" is both a very well-mannered look at the war in Iraq and its effects on the people involved, as well as a very interesting crime thriller. At the heart of it is Haggis's quietly powerful directing style and the cast's powerfully quiet performances. I don't see this picking up a Best Picture nomination as Haggis's past three Oscar hopeful screenplays ("Letters from Iwo Jima," "Crash," and "Million Dollar Baby"), but I would not be surprised to see it pick up a few acting nominations as well as possibly a screenplay nod. If it does...it would have definitely earned it.