The Reeler


September 13, 2007

In the Valley of Elah

Haggis brings the heavy in his attempt to weigh in on the cost of the war

The ideas at work in Paul Haggis's follow-up to Crash, 2005's Oprah- and Oscar-approved look at the insidiousness of racism in America, have all of that film's soft-headed, platitudinous swipes at meaning with none of the hard-nosed gimmickry. In the Valley of Elah is Haggis's attempt to weigh in on the second Iraq war, and weigh it does; it weighs and it weighs and in the final frames finally cuts loose positively revels in the weight of its own weightiness. Elah is so heavy, in fact, that Haggis seems to have deemed simple properties of good narrative and efficient filmmaking beside the point. The weight IS the point; just ask your ass as you finally dislodge it from under two-plus hours of leaden portent.

Which is not to say, of course, that Haggis's is anything less than the Gravitron of contemporary subject matter. But the Canadian director takes so long to do so little that even the few genuinely provocative and interesting ideas that attempt to assert themselves get bogged down in the general narrative torpor. The film opens by declaring itself "inspired by actual events," though it's not clear which events are being cherry-picked. Is it the general event of the war? Incidents of post-traumatic violence committed by returning soldiers? A female detective being razzed by her chauvinist co-workers? I'm pretty sure it can't refer to the film's book-ending bit of business with the American flag; that one is so clearly a product of a desperate screenwriter's brain that it deserved its own title frame of distinction.

Tommy Lee Jones plays Hank Deerfield, a Vietnam vet and Tennessee truck driver whose son Mike is mysteriously AWOL after returning from a tour in Iraq. Hank and his wife Joan (Susan Sarandon) have already lost their eldest son to the Army, so Mike's disappearance is especially dire. Hank, visited in his dreams by his son's disturbing calls home, takes off alone for the Army base looking for answers. Along the way he passes a building with an American flag hanging upside down and pulls over to school the Guatemalan groundskeeper in the art and aesthetics of patriotism. That scene of blunt-force metaphor sets the tone of what is to come, with little deviation.

Hank gets some gladhanding and no answers from Mike's Army mates; smooth-skinned and brisk, a series of young men you would never guess had just been to war greet and dismiss Hank with no more than due concern for his missing son. Hank nicks Mike's cell phone from his room and acquires an IT sidekick who can download the videos it contains -- but only at a speed in keeping with Haggis's narrative wont, so that they always manage to arrive in Hank's inbox exactly when some new direction is needed.

Meanwhile, back at the overfed dude ranch known as the local police station, Detective Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron) is fielding the lame, pet-related crimes her macho colleagues keep fobbing off on her. A single mother of a young boy, Emily doesn't care that much about the lack of respect (or her job, as she is proven to be a rather shitty detective); as long as the paychecks keep coming, she's happy to do what she's told. But when a body turns up near the Army base, Emily tags along to the grisly scene, only to have the case pulled back into military jurisdiction. The burnt, dismembered body is identified as that of the missing Mike, and the Army quickly attempts to write it off as drug deal (Mike is accused of having developed a taste for meth) gone wrong.

The rest of the investigation hits its marks so methodically and with such self-satisfaction that it leaves very little room for the viewer to muster any satisfaction of his or her own. Sarandon's Joan, shown briefly mewling at home every half hour or so, is so badly wasted that that's all you can think about when she appears on screen. Emily and Hank eventually find their way toward each other and form a sort of team against Jason Patric's military investigator, a blandly affectless and yet effective presence who may or may not be hiding something. Theron's long, sleek body and little seal head are truly startling against Jones's lumbering but somehow vulnerable physique and giant, stubborn noggin; they form a nice rapport that is nevertheless taxed beyond its means by Haggis's slooooow-moving train of justice.

As suspicion falls on each of Mike's fellow troops and revelations about their time in Iraq and their time at home come clean, Hank learns that his son had begun to display some monstrous behavior -- and is given sway to display some of his own. Losing a sense of his son after actually losing his son proves more painful, though we are not shown any recognition Hank might have of such behavior, being himself a veteran of an at least equally vicious and controversial war. Hank's Army (if not his war; nay, his America) and Mike's Army are shown to be distinctly different; when he calls on an old Army friend for inside help, he is told as much. So did the Army make Mike torture Iraqi wounded and kill innocent children, or did the war, or did this war?

Content to raise those questions accompanied by tasteful strings and by the perpetual greenish light of a bureaucratic cluster-fuck, Haggis manages at least a couple of times to lock the film into its proper gear. When the troops are finally knocked out of denial thicker than Jones's molasses gaze, there is a confession scene of such shiny-eyed, zombie-like disaffection that it chills to the bone, and is a reminder not just of the surrounding film's inferiority, but of the price this country is making its soldiers pay and pay and pay.

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Comments (2)

Lanny and Remy Davis have set up a Foundation in honor of their son. The Richard Thomas Davis Foundation For Peace will work as an outreach program to help all military families whose son or daughter have made it home from the war only to turn up missing or murdered. At the present, military red tape makes it almost impossible for these families to get the help they desperately need.

In addition, the foundation will work to facilitate change for the individual soldiers. The issuance of moral waivers have increased dramatically, allowing even violent criminals with gang ties and prior mental health problems to enter into service. Richard's death is a direct result of these low recruitment standards.

Although Richard's murder was not the result of PTSD, the Foundation is not overlooking the need to help in this regard. As it stands now, asking for PTSD treatment has a stigma attached to it and therefore many soldiers are ashamed to ask, for fear of being viewed as weak. This stigma can be removed. If the military takes the proactive step of making PTSD counseling and training mandatory, the same as weapons training, it will only serve to make our soldiers stronger and more resilient in both body and mind.

To volunteer and be a part of this important work, please visit the following website:

When I was in the Navy, I was devistated when everything I had ,except the clothes I was wearing, was stolen by criminals who were getting discharged. The day that they left, they may have broken into other lockers. The real culprits are the judges that give criminals the choice "you can go to jail or join the military".

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