For a movie that's replete with love of land, family values and biblically titled, "In The Valley of Elah," it seems a stretch to think it would make a guy like me recall one of the most chilling lines ever muttered by Marlon Brando as Colonel Kurtz: "The horror!" So much for 1979's "Apocalypse Now" and Vietnam as history repeats itself with "In The Valley of Elah" and Iraq. (The title of the film refers to the place where David bagged Goliath in a standoff between the Israelites and the Philistines.
Paul Haggis (Best Picture "Crash," "Million Dollar Baby," "Letters From Iwo Jima") has done it again in 2007 with a seemingly wide appeal film that's bolder and more on-target than anything Hollywood might really want to say this fall about contemporary America. Haggis has written the script without benefit of focus groups.
What's really nutty is that "Elah" tracks much like CBS' "Without A Trace" or a "CSI" forensic police procedure. Whoa, though. The payoff for this Haggis film is a little higher on the Richter scale than what we get to see on mainstream television; and Mark Isham's unobtrusive score is just right for this new film bound to cause a buzz come Oscar time. (One of Isham's best pieces, out long ago on Windham Hill Records is titled, "On the Threshold of Liberty." It makes you stand up and be proud when you hear it.)
Never looking better, Tommy Lee Jones plays Hank Deerfield, a retired U.S. Army noncom who spent most of his duty time as a criminal investigator. Charlize Theron, looking great as usual, but toned down to seem less glamorous (if thats possible) is savvy Detective Emily Sanders, a divorced woman with a young son. Susan Sarandon (almost in a cameo that's very moving) is Hank's wife, Joan.
Hank's and Joan's son, Mike (Jonathan Tucker) is just four days back in the USA from a grueling tour in Iraq. Hank gets a phone call from the Army post where he was formerly stationed. Mike has gone AWOL.
The Deerfields now live in Tennessee, but in his pickup, Hank hauls two days west to a fictitious Army installation in New Mexico to seek the whereabouts of his missing son. Hank and Joan lost their older boy in an accident in the military some years earlier.
Red tape and incompetence await Hank in New Mexico as it's long since he retired from the service and all his contacts at the post are gone. To get to the bottom of Mike's disappearance, Haggis' script (from a story by Mike Boal) puts Hank---still all spit and polish---in tandem with Emily, a civilian police detective. The pair embarks on a daunting mission to find the young, missing soldier just back from, as Hank says in an angry moment, "fighting 17 months in some shit hole for democracy!"
(By the way, Mike Boal has collaborated with Kathryn Bigelow on another film about Iraq to be released in 2008 titled, "The Hurt Locker.")
Director Haggis allows for well-timed moments of moderate comic relief in the style and culture of the characters depicted. His dialogue is crisp and real and satisfying. Theron has some great moments nailing her male superiors as they make light of Emily's honest efforts to perform as a professional police detective. The taciturn Hank has his issues with the female gender as well, but he's the fool of no one, knows the ropes and anxious (but respectful) in trying to solve the mystery surrounding his son. In a topless and almost bottomless bar near the post, Hank is so steady as to address a bare-breasted bar maid (Frances Fisher) as "ma'am" while maintaining a steady gaze on her face. Talk about discipline.
As in "Million Dollar Baby," Haggis mixes a satisfying cocktail for us in "Elah" that is most masculine with strong feminist values.Clint and Hilary could've played these roles too.
Combining these traits in "Elah," however, isn't the film's point. It's "The horror!" The horror experienced by that so-insane Colonel Kurtz in Francis Coppola's "Apocalypse Now." The horror of PTSD: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. (It was called "shell shock" in the Big One.)
Near the end of "In the Valley of Elah," scenes demonstrating this terrible mental malady suffered by so many of our returning service people from Iraq are disturbingly, but well-portrayed. Sane people will feel disbelief, revulsion, anger and pity for the film's PTSD victims; yet, understand that their bizarre and heinous actions may be the only way to cope in an environment of such chaos and savagery as Iraq.
Oh, the horror, indeed. Another important piece of cinema from Paul Haggis.
"In The Valley of Elah" preview. Beware: spoiler.