Saturday, April 12, 2008

In the Valley of Elah

Paul Haggis' In the Valley of Elah (2007) is, for most of its length, such a seamless blend of character and action that one forgives the film its flaws. As a statement about the Iraq war, it's grossly inadequate even next to something as flawed as Brian De Palma's Redacted (also 2007), which did a better job of showing why some American soldiers are committing atrocities. On the other hand, Haggis' film works better as storytelling and Charlize Theron turns in the best performance I've seen from her.

The film alternates between crisp 35mm cinematography by Roger Deakins and nearly illegible video, and Haggis builds a dialectic between past- and present-tense, representation and abstraction, observation and identification. In the present-tense scenes, shot on 35mm, Hank (Tommy Lee Jones) recieves a phone call informing him that his son, Michael (Jonathan Tucker), has gone AWOL from a Texas military base, which comes as a shock to Hank who thought his son was still fighting in Iraq. It's not long before Michael's mutilated body is found, and as Hank unravels what happened, Haggis uses the form of a whodunnit to reveal Hank's character, and that of Emily (Theron), a detective who aids him in his investigation.

One indication of this is Haggis' willingness to stay with Hank and Emily in scenes which have little to do with the main plot. At one point, Emily, a single parent, invites Hank to her house for dinner, and afterwards, Hank attempts to read her son a bedtime story, C.S. Lewis' "The Chronicles of Narnia." Hank refuses to read it on the grounds that he can't understand a single word, and instead recounts the story of David and Goliath. Later he insists that the story is a literal truth, adding "It's even in the Qur'an."

In other words, while the present-tense scenes invite us to observe Hank and Emily in various situations, the past-tense scenes, which consist of Michael's video diary in Iraq, invite us to identify with Hank's point of view as he watches them. These scenes are stretched out across the film at regular intervals, and by the time Haggis gets around to revealing the identity of Hank's murderer, the past-tense narrative has completely overwhelmed the present-tense story, with Hank bearing silent witness to the killer's confession (significantly coupled with the film's only flashback in 35mm). And this is where Haggis really gets into trouble.

Haggis wants to show that soldiers can't do unspeakable things one day, and then come home and be normal the next. The first time we see Emily, she's speaking to a woman whose boyfriend, an Iraq war veteran, went crazy and drowned their pet dog. However, Hank served in Vietnam (another war in which some American soldiers committed atrocities) and Michael was in Bosnia, but neither seems to have been traumatized by these experiences. The film implies that this war is esspecially terrible, but shows no insight into what's motivating some American soldiers to commit the kind of atrocities shown in the film, or how they're different from those committed in previous wars.

In the Valley of Elah is still a vast improvement on Million Dollar Baby (2004) and Crash (2005). The gaps in credibility are less noticeable, and Haggis doesn't attempt to inject comic relief into an otherwise somber drama. His limitations are still apparent in spots, but they're less damaging in this context. For instance, Emily's co-workers are all familiar Haggis types--unredeemable sexists who think she got the job by sleeping her away to the lower middle--but their scenes work regardless because they tell us so much about Emily. It feels strange to say, but I'm curious to see what Haggis will do next.

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