In the Valley of Elah
Having had his projects garlanded with Oscars for writing (Million Dollar Baby) and direction (Crash), the wheels finally come off the Paul Haggis bandwagon with In The Valley of Elah, a well-acted but deathly dull military drama which trivialises issues connected with the Iraq war.
Tommy Lee Jones stars as gruff ex-soldier Hank Deerfield, whose marriage to Joan (Susan Sarandon) is interrupted when his son is reported AWOL on return from a tour of duty in Iraq. With the help of tough police detective Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron), Deerfield launches his own investigation, finding valuable clues among the harrowing images of war he finds on his son’s mobile phone. But Hank’s pursuit of the truth also uncovers a few truths about Iraq, a reality of torture and cruelty that suggests his old school sense of military honour is badly out of joint with the modern world.
Despite top-notch acting all round, Haggis’ film feels suspiciously like reheated leftovers; the biblical allusions of the title, recalling the setting for David’s battle with Goliath, are explained in the context of a child’s bedtime story as in Crash, while scenes detailing Theron’s ongoing battles against prejudice in the workplace could have been lifted verbatim from the same film. When he’s not ripping off his own work, Haggis’ firm grasp of a police procedural keeps things moving along, but In The Valley of Elah’s rigour only serves to paint a dour picture of patriotism-gone-sour.
The presence of Jones, Josh Brolin and cinematographer Roger Deakins will inevitably spark comparisons with the Coen brothers’ similarly-themed No Country For Old Men, but there’s simply no comparison. Where the Coens create dark comedy, dreamlike poetry and a thoughtful consideration of the role of fate in our lives, Haggis has nothing to offer but glib TV movie moralising and woolly liberal posturing about how awful war is. Bookended with crudely symbolic scenes in which Jones explains how to fly an American flag in times of emergency, Haggis’ monotone drama doesn’t signify anything more resonant than a failure of imagination on the part of the filmmakers.
General release from Fri 25 Jan.