In The Valley Of Elah

January 25, 2008

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OUT: Today

Writer Paul Haggis’ 2005 remarkable directorial debut Crash will be remembered as much for its shock Best Picture win over Brokeback Mountain at the Oscars as it will for its edgy story of disparate individuals in Los Angeles whose lives intersect over a couple of days, and the terrific performances by the ensemble cast Don Cheadle, Sandra Bullock and Supporting Actor Nominee Matt Dillon. At times brilliant, even electrifying, Crash did suffer from occasional mawkish sentimentality and Haggis’ unsubtle direction. With In The Valley Of Elah, he has matured into a serious craftsman.

Tommy Lee Jones gives the performance of the year, and the best of his career, as Hank Deerfield, a former Army Sergeant whose son, having recently returned from Iraq, has gone missing at base. Jones is mesmerising throughout, filling his character with warmth behind the hard, seen-it-all face and displaying military-esque mannerisms. One beautiful scene shows Hank rushing to put on a still damp shirt at a Laundromat before he can talk to local detective Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron, superb), who is heading up the investigation into his son’s disappearance. The relationship between the two is key to the film: Sanders suffering heavily from her sexist colleagues whilst raising her young son by herself, at one point sees Hank as almost a father figure to her and her own child.

The scene where Hank tells him a bedtime story, about David and Goliath’s battle in the valley of Elah, is (thank Heavens) not a carbon copy of the saccharine father-daughter scene in Crash, but instead like the rest of the film is a moving sentence of poetic and political resonance.

Of course the film would lose its way, or become stagnant altogether, were it not for the mystery at hand. And Haggis does well to flesh it out, making all the interrogations with Hank’s son’s fellow army men, reflections on the horror of war and Hank’s visits to various off-duty militia hang-outs (otherwise known as strip clubs) feel credible. All the performances (including James Franco and Josh Brolin, who pop up in minor roles) are completely believable, confirming that Haggis is an actor’s director as well as an actor’s writer. Susan Sarandon, only in a couple of scenes as Hank’s wife, is magnificent as a mother contemplating the thought of losing another son to the army after her eldest was killed in action. Only Haggis’ moderate obsession with emotional imagery and symbolism that is hammered home with bells on stops this film from becoming a minor classic. But these brief moments are fortunately rare, and never in danger of spoiling this film. At times it looks really quite stunning, shimmering ambience contrasted with stark close-ups, and Mark Isham’s atmospheric score is very effective. But it’s the leads that really bring the film together: Jones is completely unforgettable, his modest expressions and thoughtful, heartfelt dialogue is truly heartbreaking, and he deserves the Best Actor Oscar, while Theron is gives a searingly honest performance that could be her best yet. As a character driven, fragile politically charged mystery, it’s nigh on unmissable.

THE CRUNCH

4.5/5  nostalgic veteran tattoos

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