The Iraq war continues to provide filmmakers with difficult subject matter. Sure, there are many excellent documentaries that provide insight into the conflict which is perpetually in the news. But when it comes to drama, the conflict is rarely tackled head on. We’ve seen films that deal with the war on terror, films that deal with how the Coalition handles suspects in this war. And in In The Valley Of Elah, we have a film that deals, somewhat, with soldiers returning from the war.
Tommy Lee Jones plays Hank Deerfield, a retired military investigator who’s son returns from Iraq, only to go AWOL days later. Deerfield takes it upon himself to investigate his son’s disappearance. It is very unlike his son Mike to take off without letting his parents know where he is. Hank tries to enlist the help of the police only to be told it is a military matter and he should seek help from military police. But eager to keep his son out of trouble, Hank looks for help from Detective Emily Sanders, a single mom fighting for recognition in a job dominated by men. When a body turns up that is revealed to be Mike, Hank and Emily begin the search for Mike’s murderers.
I’ve never been a huge fan of Paul Haggis’ work. While Crash was an interesting if unremarkable drama, I’ve found when Haggis gets behind the camera, the films he produce are a little dull. Haggis is a better writer on other peoples’ films than he is a director, and this is evident in In The Valley Of Elah. At face value, In The Valley Of Elah is a crime drama. A crime has been committed, and Tommy Lee Jones is determined to get to the bottom of it. Underpinning this drama are a bunch of morality statements about what happens to the soldiers sent to fight in Iraq. These two elements provide two different problems with the film. The first, the drama isn’t particularly engaging or compelling. You know the mystery will be solved, but it’s a bit of a long haul getting to the reveal. The second problem lies with Haggis’ determination to drive a point home.
Haggis’ screenplays are packed with morality and life lessons. The problem is though, he’s as subtle as a rusty chainsaw in how he delivers his little lessons. When he works with other directors, the morality is reeled in a little. But when Haggis goes it alone, his morality is incredibly ham-fisted. The closing moments of In The Valley Of Elah are so blunt in their delivery of morality that I found myself actually angered at the approach Haggis took. I felt like screaming ‘OKAY PAUL, I GET IT ALREADY!’ It’s one thing to teach a lesson in a film. It’s another thing
entirely to ram the point down someone’s throat.
The performances are very good in the film. Tommy Lee Jones is on top form as Hank Deerfield, a life-long military man who finds himself questioning something he’s stood for his entire life. Jones is at his best at the moment, and while his character’s development during the film could feel like too much too soon, Jones handles it well enough that it doesn’t seem that way. Charlize Theron is in Oscar mode as Detective Emily Sanders. She’s dressed down and glum looking. But it’s a shame her character is such a cliché to prevent her from really shining. The single mom fighting prejudice in the workplace? It was entirely unnecessary to write the character in such a way, and seems ridiculous in the context of the film. Susan Sarandon has what amounts to little more than a cameo as Hank’s wife.
The problems with In The Valley Of Elah prevent from becoming a great film. The dullness of the mystery added to the ham-fisted approach to lessons prevent it from becoming the film Haggis desperately wants it to be. The film is beautifully shot by Coens-regular, Roger Deakins, but it takes more that beautifully shot film to make a film interesting. Perhaps in the hands of another, more talented director and without the clichéd aspects to Detective Emily Sanders’ character, it would have been a better film. But as it is, it’s only just mediocre.