Director – Paul Haggis
Writer – Paul Haggis
Starring – Tommy Lee Jones, Charlize Theron, Susan Sarandon, Jason Patric, James Franco
Paul Haggis, the writer of 2004’s award winning Million Dollar Baby and writer/director of 2005’s Best Picture winner Crash, brings his talent to the subject of the Iraq war with In the Valley of Elah. I was expecting the same high level of quality that was found in his mentioned earlier work and I am saddened to say it’s not completely there.
After a soldier returns from Iraq and promptly goes missing, his father (played by Tommy Lee Jones) heads out, with the help of a police detective (Theron) to uncover the truth behind his disappearance.
What bugged a lot of people about Haggis’ award winning Crash was that it had too many characters and tried too hard to make them intertwine with each other. Although I didn’t have a problem at all with that aspect I still recognized that the film could have been a bit more focused in what it was about. In The Valley of Elah doesn’t have that problem to face, as the film is about one thing and it stays focused on that throughout. This gives us a chance to keep our attention firmly on the situation at hand and watch closely the performances given all round, particularly from Tommy Lee Jones who just recently got nominated for this very role. The fatherly role was a complex one to tackle in many respects but the Jones has long since proven he can handle such complexity and I don’t need to tell you he’s stellar here. This, along with his performance in the excellent No Country for Old Men, just goes to prove he is one of America’s best actors.
Charlize Theron also has a complicated role as the detective helping out with the case. And she also has proven long ago, particularly with her Oscar winning performance in Monster, that she can handle any kind of role and she handles this decisively difficult one with apparent ease. No one else in the film is given much screen time to speak of, especially a criminally underused Susan Sarandon. If you go to the bother of getting a master class actress such as her you might want to make the effort of having her in the story a little more. Some might say the character doesn’t need any more screen time, and although I could stretch to agree with that I none the less wished that Sarandon was on-screen a hell of a lot more than she was.
The film’s intentions are admirable, and for the most part it’s heart is firmly in the right place, it’s just the film is done in a manner that doesn’t suit. Although the screenplay may be well written in terms of affecting dialogue and such it still, none the less, rings a bit false. Most of the time it feel likes you are listening to dialogue that was meant to be delivered rather than eaves-dropping on natural conversations.
What also bugged me about the film was the amount of unnecessary scenes. Some of the scenes felt like the deleted ones you would find on a DVD instead of integral parts of the actual film. There are even some I would go as far to say that if you took them out you wouldn’t notice any difference within the story. A lot of the film is slow, sometimes in a good way but sometimes not, and some of the supporting performances, as brief as they may be, feel a bit clunky and forced. As if they were just there to fill in some sort of information Haggis thinks we couldn’t have worked out for ourselves. Throw in some wholly un-called for plot turns and you’ve got a film that doesn’t work nearly as well as it should.
There was a pretty major problem I had with the film that in the end caused me to like it a lot less than I thought I would. I couldn’t quite comprehend the complex, but key, plot twist and the ultimate explanation given towards the end. I won’t say what it is in fear of giving away a big spoiler but let’s just say it comes right out of the blue and doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Maybe I missed something or just didn’t click with the film but I am stilled confused as to what the outcome of this dramatic mystery was.
Take away the integral problems I had with the film I think it just comes down to the fact that it didn’t affect me neatly as much as his previous films did. Crash in particular had me invested in its story and characters in a way I had never experienced before. This film, however, just lacks a certain on-the-ball flair for me to get attached to it in the same way. It’s worth seeing, though, if nothing else to see the stellar performance by Tommy Lee Jones. I expected a lot more from In the Valley of Elah and writer/director Haggis. I just hope he delivers a lot more with his next project.