Directed by: Paul Haggis
Starring: Tommy Lee Jones, Charlize Theron, Susan Sarandon, Jason Patric, James Franco
Legend has it that President Calvin Coolidge attended church without his wife one Sunday, and when he returned she asked him what the sermon was about. “Sin,” the famously taciturn president told her. When pressed for details on what the minister had to say on the topic, Coolidge told her, “He was against it.” In many ways, that’s what you learn from Paul Haggis’ movies. In Crash (2005), his mystifyingly Oscar-winning film, he told us he was against racism—again and again for two hours. With his latest, the pretentiously titled (for no very clear reason) In the Valley of Elah (the biblical site of David’s set-to with Goliath), he informs us that he’s against the war in Iraq—also for two hours—and doesn’t cover a lot more than that. Haggis’ specialty is belaboring the obvious.
Moreover, Haggis makes movies that constantly mistake the importance of the subject matter for the importance of the film itself. The real question is whether he’s actually in search of some great truth, in search of an Oscar or merely trying to compensate for having been a staff writer on TV’s The Facts of Life for a couple years. Elah seems to reflect all three. It’s not that it’s a bad movie; it’s not. It’s that it’s simplistic and obvious—and, bizarrely, both overstated and reticent.
Oddly, one of the film’s weaknesses is remarkably similar to the one that sinks the credibility of The Kingdom, which came out last week. Where The Kingdom sacrifices whatever claims it has to being politically relevant by covering everything with a thick layer of standard forensic-police drama and action-flick derring-do, Elah wraps itself in a disappointingly unmysterious mystery story that plays like a poor man’s In the Heat of the Night (1967). Since Haggis drew his story from an actual event, there’s some justification for the approach, but his development of the material is ploddingly predictable and heavily reliant on everything happening in an all too convenient and neat dramatic arc.
The film is supposed to chart gung-ho ex-army military police officer Hank Deerfield’s (Tommy Lee Jones) awakening to the idea that neither the war in Iraq nor the modern army are as glorious as he imagines. When Deerfield learns that his soldier son, Mike (Jonathan Tucker), is missing and presumed AWOL after returning from a tour of duty in Iraq, something doesn’t seem right, so he goes to look into the situation himself. He soon finds that Mike has been murdered and hacked into pieces by persons unknown, who then tried (very unsuccessfully) to dispose of the body by burning it. The Army, of course, wants to bury the case. The local authorities are only too glad to get rid of the case when it’s learned that the body was discovered on Army land, and are none too thrilled when Deerfield shows Detective Emily Sanders (a glammed-down Charlize Theron) that Mike was killed on public land and then moved to the government-owned field. (This guy must have been the Sherlock Holmes of the military police during his day.)
The film then alternates between being a rather dull odd-couple cop movie and a wholly transparent awakening process for Deerfield, who conveniently receives evermore disturbing bits and pieces of videos that are being salvaged from his son’s damaged cell phone via a helpful phone technician (Rick Gonzalez, For Your Consideraion). Setting aside questions of just who was constantly recording all this footage that looks more and more like war atrocities, it’s a little hard to believe that these rescued files just happen to arrive in the precise order for maximum dramatic impact.
That’s just one of the typical Haggisian tactics that undermines the film, and hardly the worst of them. As is always the case with Haggis, everything has a point and everything ties together. In subtler hands, this might be called foreshadowing. In Haggis’ ham-fist, it’s always a blatant setup. As a result, when we see Deerfield give a janitor (TV actor Joseph Bertot) lessons in how to fly the American flag—and explain that flying one upside down is a distress signal—it’s a given that we haven’t seen the last of this. (The real mystery is whether Haggis really thinks its reappearance is the great body-blow moment he wants it to be.) Similarly, when Detective Sanders blows off a woman’s complaint about her ex-soldier husband bare-handedly drowning the family Doberman in the bathtub, we know we’ll hear more about this down the road.
More damaging—and ultimately more disturbing—is the way in which Haggis reduces everything and everyone to a single type. If you take the movie at face value, it’s hard not to conclude that every soldier who ever went to Iraq is now completely numb to the human condition and suffering from PTSD to a spectacularly dangerous degree. Painting with such a broad brush might seem like dramatic shorthand, but it ultimately serves to create such a reductive and simplistic vision that it’s either self-defeating or potentially dangerous.
However, all these dubious points are housed in a film where the importance of the subject matter—aided and abetted by the caliber of the performances by Jones, Theron and Susan Sarandon—actually overrides all the Haggisisms to a degree that Elah is in the strange position of being a not wholly successful film that nonetheless should be seen. Individual moments—especially the scene where Sarandon’s character views her son’s mutilated remains through a window—are powerful, while the questions the film raises need raising. Still, it’s a film that ought to be viewed with its shortcomings in mind. Rated R for violent and disturbing content, language and some sexuality/nudity.