‘In the Valley of Elah’

Carly at the Movies column by Carl Larsen

I’m not sure why the critics are so violently split about filmmaker Paul Haggis, or even why it matters.
Some think he’s great, some think he’s awful, bit after seeing his latest film, “In the Valley of Elah,” I’m pretty sure that I’m in the right camp. He’s great.
Currently playing at the Regal Downtown Mall in Charlottesville, this film is destined for more than one Oscar nomination this year. It stars Tommy Lee Jones, Charlize Theron and Susan Sarandon in a gripping tale that, on one level, is a gristly murder mystery and on another is an interesting and thoughtful contemplation of the influence of war upon its participants.

It begins simply enough. Tommy Lee Jones, an ex-M.P., hears that his son has returned from fighting in Iraq. He sets out to find him, and with the aid of police detective Charlize Theron, learns that his son has been killed right here in the U.S.

As in his earlier Oscar-winning film “Crash,” writer-director Haggis supplies all the pieces to the puzzle in short, dramatic clips, and leaves it to you to put the (sometimes) heavy-handed message together.

Jones is quite the master of the solemnly honorable avenger, as seen in earlier flicks such as “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada” (2005), “The Fugitive” (1993) and about a jillion others, including the classic TV Western mini-series “Lonesome Dove.”

Well, he won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for “The Fugitive,” and he’s got a great shot at winning Best Actor for “Elah.” With body language and facial expression more than dialogue, he displays the emotional turmoil beneath the surface of a man in search of his son and his son’s killers.

The only slight weakness in the script – which is mesmerizing, by the way – is his near-infallible detective work. The guy’s an ex-M.P.-turned-gravel-hauler, but he’s so perfect in his criminal deduction I half-expected him to utter that familiar Holmesian elucidation, “Elementary, my dear Charlize!”

However, his overly-keen private eye didn’t lessen my respect for Tommy Lee’s work one bit. He’s just great, and the film rings shudderingly truthful.

I don’t want to give away any of the plot points, or it would lessen the impact of this forceful film.

The cinematography is simply exquisite. Sarandon has only a few scenes, as the mourning wife, but all are little gems of acting skill and photography. And an old favorite, Barry Corbin (he played Maurice in “Northern Exposure”), has a brief and effective cameo.

Oh, and as to the title: the valley of Elah is the biblical spot where David and Goliath had it out. Luckily, Haggis lets you make of that what you will.

Just be aware that Paul Haggis doesn’t deal with trifles. No light comedies for this guy. After writing the screenplays for “Crash” and then “Million Dollar Baby,” and winning Oscars for both, he worked on the scripts for both of Clint Eastwood’s Iwo Jima films and then put together an extremely dark and brooding TV series called “The Black Donnellys” about an Irish mob of gangsters.

While fascinating, it was almost too bleak for even my gloomy sensibilities. Alas, it was cancelled.

There’s plenty of room on my list of the year’s 10 best movies (so far, only “Ratatouille” has a provisional spot), so let’s just add “In the Valley of Elah,” and hope that the rest of the year shapes up as well.

  

Carl Larsen is a regular contributor to The Augusta Free Press. Look for his At the Movies column on Mondays.



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