In the Valley of Elah
Paul Haggi, Mark Boal
Tommy Lee Jones, Charlize Theron, Jason Patric, Susan Sarandon, James Franco, Barry Corbin, Josh Brolin, Frances Fisher, Wes Chatham, Jake McLaughlin
The biblical relevance of Paul Haggis’ third feature film will likely be lost on audiences if they don’t do a bit of research. In the Valley of Elah follows a retired military investigator as he faces his most difficult challenge yet, investigating the disappearance of his son.
He talks about how things used to be. He looks at the present as if it were a reflection of the past he once knew. For Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones), his own military experience should be precisely the one his son has gone through, but when he goes missing, Hank uproots himself to go in search of answers in a mystery that deepens with every step he takes.
Jones delivers one of his most reserved and introspective performances to date as the principled ex-MP determined to uncover his son’s murderer while a belligerent military and a put-upon police detective (Charlize Theron) go head-to-head in a fight to find justice. This isn’t your typical Jones who generally plays his roles with explosive forwardness. While he dials it back quite a bit from his typical exploration of characters, it gives us a chance to observe a masterful actor exploring his craft rather than someone playing to a stereotype he’s carefully constructed over the last two decades.
Theron is strong, as are Jason Patric as the resistant military investigator, and Susan Sarandon as Hank’s wife, the bereaved mother. A particularly poignant scene involves Sarandon’s arrival at the facility where her son has been stored even though she’s been warned off by her husband. The quietly powerful scene in a long, sterile hallway adds one of the film’s three moments of pure emotional catharsis. Not coming off particularly well are James Franco as a superfluous military officer character and Josh Brolin as Theron’s police chief and unconcerned participant.
In the Valley of Elah marks a departure from Haggis’ obvious, straight-forward writing style. Marred by an excessive attempt at find “gotcha” moments and gloss over race relations in Los Angeles, Haggis turned Crash into a Best Picture winner, but not before alarming those who watched it over its simplified tones and themes. Here, he’s more clarified in purpose, which makes for a more enjoyable experience. He still relies too heavily on an excess of characters and plays certain scenes with obvious melodrama, but overall this is a more improved cinematic structure.
This introspective co-writing effort with The Hurt Locker scribe Mark Boal might be the pinnacle of Haggis’ career. The rest of Haggis’ filmography has been a letdown, but at least for this one moment in cinema, he got it mostly right.
March 8, 2021