Eugene Weekly : Movies : 10.4.07


Time Will Darken It
Tommy Lee Jones and the artifacts of fatherhood

IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH: Written and Directed by Paul Haggis. Cinematography, Roger Deakins. Music, Mark Isham. Starring Tommy Lee Jones, Charlize Theron, Jason Patric, Susan Sarandon, James Franco and Josh Brolin. Warner Independent Pictures, 2007. R. 124 minutes.

Tommy Lee Jones and Susan Sarandon in In the Valley of Elah

There’s something explosive about the work of Paul Haggis, the writer/director of Crash and In the Valley of Elah. I’m referring, of course, to his recent work — Haggis is the first person in Oscar history to write back-to-back Best Pictures, Million Dollar Baby and Crash — as well as an earlier, more obscure achievement. Haggis, it turns out, created Walker, Texas Ranger, that improbable mélange of roundhouse kicks to the face and old-fashioned family values. Having released Walker upon us, Haggis has a lot of making up to do, a fact that hasn’t escaped him: He’s been quoted as saying that Million Dollar Baby was an attempt to keep references to Walker from his tombstone. Undeniably, Cordell Walker set both martial arts and law enforcement — not to mention the sex appeal of the duster coat — back a generation, but we’ve been mostly fortunate for Haggis’s output since, which includes the screenplay for Casino Royale.

In the Valley of Elah (pronounced “Ella”) is the story of weathered veteran Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones), whose son Mike (Jonathan Tucker) goes AWOL upon returning from Iraq. Hank is mulish and suspicious, not to mention highly experienced — he was a military policeman in Vietnam — which helps explain why he sets out for his son’s barracks in New Mexico to begin his own investigation. Other than Mike’s cell phone, which Hank surreptitiously slips out of Mike’s bedroom — and which appears to contain a series of scrambled but incriminating videos — Hank has little to work with. That is, until Mike’s mutilated body is discovered. Some uncomfortable insinuations ensue, such as the suggestion that Mike was a drug dealer, but the more Hank picks apart these theories, the more Lt. Kirklander (Jason Patric) and the military seem to be hiding something.

Hank finds a willing if inexperienced ally in detective Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron), a good-natured cop usually assigned to animal cruelty cases. After a long, slow buildup, Elah starts to generate some smoke, with Hank treating Emily with the curmudgeonly disregard Clint Eastwood shows Hilary Swank in Million Dollar Baby. But despite terrific performances from both actors, Elah never catches fire. One reason is that Jones, who is terrifically focused, plays it close to the material, and the material calls for him to internalize everything. He’s a black hole of emotion. For that reason, nobody — not Emily, not even his wife, Joan (an underused Susan Sarandon) — can penetrate the depths to which Hank has withdrawn. (Hank forbids Joan to accompany him during his investigation; when she insists on viewing Mike’s remains, Hank allows her to fly down for a few hours, after which she leaves the film for good.) The other problem with Elah is the fractured, many-spoked nature of its plot, which is like a map with too many roads upon it. When will Hank accept Emily as an equal? Will Emily overcome her victimhood (struggling single mom, a sexist workplace, etc.)? When will the video files from Mike’s phone be restored? Crash was built to handle this multiplicity, but Elah surely is not; as a result, too much action takes place off-screen in Elah, where it makes little or no impact.

Like Zodiac, Elah tries to operate both as an art-house film and a straightforward police procedural without fully succeeding at either. It doesn’t try to create a halo for Hank, nor does it give him any room to stretch out. Jones’s voice is still a rare instrument: It has a sagging, gravelly quality, as if his jaw is filled with rocks. But Jones plays Hank as a constricted red-state faithful. Only at the end does Hank seem to accept the film’s theme — that war dehumanizes and corrupts rather than elevates the spirit — but in Hank’s final gesture, I felt my arm twisted to the breaking point. It’s a shame because the talent assembled here is superb. Haggis remains an exciting prospect to watch, but in Elah — a reference to where David bested Goliath — less would have been more.