For many, Paul Haggis will forever be the person who directed the most egregious Best Picture Oscar-winner of the past twenty-five years. He’s not. That honor belongs to Ron Howard. I’ll over no further defense of Crash at this time (although I’ll admit I can) and will instead note that Haggis’s follow-up directorial effort is a solid film and boasts a couple tremendous performances. This review was written for my former online home.
The sophomore directorial effort from Paul Haggis, In the Valley of Elah, takes on the Iraq war with a pointed urgency. More specifically (or more broadly, depending on how you look at it) the film grapples with the cost of war on the people who wage it, those who love them and the very psyche of the country immersed in it. Like Haggis’s Oscar-grabbing Crash, the film is heavy with ambition, examining a multitude of layers in addressing the social ills it puts in its sights. Unlike Crash, it largely overcomes any tendency towards oversimplification or, worse, manipulating the characters and the situations to craft scenarios that state the filmmaker’s thesis with a leaden thump. Instead, it tells a wrenching story with grace and integrity. Even when a scene rings a bit false, it at least feels like it’s still part of the story at hand rather than a Crash-like attempt to show off every bit of the politicized pinwheel.
The story focuses on a man who finds out that his enlisted son has one missing after returning from a tour of duty in Iraq. Not one for adjusting to others’ paces when a problem needs solving, he loads into his pickup truck and begins investigating the situation for himself. The film is structured as a mystery, with the discoveries of new details regarding the son’s disappearance going hand-in-hand with discoveries about the life the son was leading. The father is played by Tommy Lee Jones as man of conservative dignity, addressing the topless waitress in a topless bar as “ma’am” and unwilling to be seen in his undershirt. Watching him encounter the seediness his son moved through is to realize the film is less about clues to this young soldier’s death and more about clues to his damaged life.
Jones gives a great performance in the lead role. I’ll grant that I only have so much authority to make an decisive statement on his recent career, having remorselessly bypassed many performances, but I still feel confident calling this the finest work he’s delivered since getting a shiny little statue several years ago. Jones subtly shows the crumbling belief system of his character as time and again his personally held truisms about his son, the military, the country and his own approach to the world are proven tragically, hopelessly wrong. Jones has never been shy about infusing some bombast into his characters and there are few actors more capable of spinning warped line readings into revelatory character moments, but here he withdraws and plays everything tight and perfect, showing his inner wounds through his eyes. Charlize Theron is excellent, too, playing a police officer who gets drawn into the case and struggles against the inherent sexism in her department.
That last detail, however, also represents one of the weaker elements of the film, the portions where those who bristle against Haggis’s social-statements-by-numbers soapboxing will find ample evidence that there’s still plenty of weight left in those heavy hands of his. While some of the scenes with her hostile cohorts have the snap of genuine exasperation in the way they depict the reflexive nature of the misogyny, enough others stumble along as undercooked nonsense from a screenwriter laboring to make a point. There are other less glaring moments, as well, but the most significant test of patience may be the final shot. It is the obvious close of the film from the moment it is set up in the first act, and the gesture depicted underlines Haggis’s arguments with blaring emphasis. This is a major punctuation mark attached to the end of the film, as if Haggis has closed with a graphic of a exclamation point. As opposed to the glistening fakery of the cleansing snow at the end of Crash, though, it still feels in character and holds enough hard truth to make it feel less like a manipulation and more like a man coming full circle, returning to a moment from the beginning of the journey that changed him forever.