While often accused of imposing its political agenda on the public, Hollywood isn't organized to churn out topical movies quickly. Thus, only now, 54 months after the invasion of Iraq, is a major feature film about the war's impact premiering.
"In the Valley of Elah" is a modest-budget drama laden with luminaries. Oscar-magnet screenwriter Paul Haggis ("Crash" and "Million Dollar Baby") directs fellow Academy Award winners Tommy Lee Jones ("The Fugitive"), Charlize Theron ("Monster"), and Susan Sarandon ("Dead Man Walking") in a spare, somber, and moving police procedural.
"Elah" is based on the notorious 2003 murder of Spc. Richard Davis by his fellow soldiers shortly after their unit arrived stateside from combat in Iraq. At some point after a drunken brawl outside a strip club, Davis was stabbed 32 times. His comrades-at-arms then dismembered his body, burnt it, and hid the remains in the woods.
Working from Mark Boal's Playboy article, Haggis wrote the central role of the victim's father, a laconic retired Army sergeant, a former military policeman in Vietnam, for his mentor Clint Eastwood, but the 77-year-old told him he has retired from acting. So Haggis turned to 61-year-old Tommy Lee Jones, who, as his formidable performance in "Elah" demonstrates, is still very much in his prime.
In this fictionalized retelling, Jones receives a phone call from the Army that his son has gone AWOL. He immediately drives to the base to search for him, bringing his decades of experience finding soldiers on benders. Yet, neither the MPs nor the local cops are much interested in this routine disappearance, and they resent the father's imposing martial presence, his pants as sharply creased as his face, as a taciturn rebuke to their bureaucratic apathy.
When a hacked-up body is found in the brush, however, Theron, a city detective promoted from meter maid because (as her chauvinist colleagues repeatedly remind her) she'd been sleeping with their boss, admits that the old soldier is the superior sleuth, and forms a wary alliance with him. In a touching scene, Jones tells the single mother's young son a bedtime story of how the boy David fought the giant Goliath in the valley of Elah.
As a director, Haggis's strength is that he's not intimidated by his screenwriter's Oscars. Haggis edited out an hour of his own dialogue, making "Elah" far quieter than the brilliant but showy "Crash." Here, Haggis lets his superb cast carry the film through long silent takes.
For example, the morning after the corpse is sent to the coroner for identification, Jones is awoken by a knock on his motel room door. Outside is a soldier in full dress uniform. Having worn the same uniform to deliver the same message to other parents, the despairing father knows what's coming. For 15 seconds he struggles to prepare himself to receive the blow in the only way he knows, willing his tired body to stand at rigid military attention.
In a brief role, Sarandon is even better than Jones. Having lost her older son to a helicopter crash in training, she asks her husband, "Couldn't you have left me just one?" When he protests that he didn't tell their boy to enlist, she responds that their son couldn't have grown up in their home without feeling that he'd never be a man until he served. Jones has no answer.
While murders in most movies are the result of cunning conspiracies that can be satisfyingly unraveled, real-life killings like this one frequently transpire among drunk or drugged-up young men for motives that remain hazy (Davis's killer refused to testify), and might well turn out to be just plain stupid.
Into this vacuum, Haggis boldly ventures, theorizing that the soldiers were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder caused by guilt over their abuse of Iraqi civilians, war crimes that are inevitable due to the very nature of urban counter-insurgency warfare.
Perhaps, but Haggis isn't a strong enough visual director to make the flashbacks to Iraq sufficiently nightmarish. And do veterans really murder each other more than other young men kill their companions? Or is the Davis killing semi-famous because it was the kind of atypical man-bites-dog story that the press loves? Movies like "Elah" that are ripped from the headlines give the screenwriter too much of an excuse to leave in implausible events because, hey, it's a true story, so it's not my fault if it seems unrealistic.Rated R for violent and disturbing content, language and some sexuality/nudity.
December 28, 2007
Here's my full review from The American Conservative: