Film Reviews

IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH

By • Sep 28th, 2007 •

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Tommy Lee Jones astonishes with a silent, agonizing pain you will feel and not easily forget.

Director-screenwriter Paul Haggis has written a breathtaking emotional role for Tommy Lee Jones. Here is an actor who has – up until now (who knows what the future holds) – refused to alter his aging face. There are very few actors who could have played this part. IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH demanded an actor who looked like a real middle-aged person.

If you have stopped being offered sexy romantic lead roles, start aging and let it show.

Hank Deerfield (Jones) gets a phone call regarding the disappearance of his son Mike (Jonathan Tucker). Just back from Iraq, if Mike does not return to the base in a few days he will be deemed AWOL. Hank, a former sergeant in criminal investigation, immediately goes to Albuquerque, New Mexico army base to find his son.

After days of doing his own investigation, a mutilated and burned body is found and identified as the remains of Mike. The horrific crime scene borders military and civilian jurisdiction and is arbitrarily given to the military to investigate. Hank asks Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron), a newly promoted police detective, for help. She was originally called to the scene. Her veteran male colleagues not only remind her of her inexperience, they suggest she has a relationship with her superior, Chief Buchwald (John Brolin). Hank asks her to take him to the location of the killing and he immediately tells her how ineffective the crime scene investigators were.

Up against the closed society of the military, Hank’s stoic training and over-riding grief keeps him searching for the answers. Ripping apart the layers of deception, Hank finds out that Mike had secrets and hidden darker issues. Slowly, Hank starts to feel he is in some way responsible for Mike’s decision to go into the military in the first place.

Jones is electrifying and this is the most important role in his career. He is the film. There is one (of many) memorable scene where he just sits, saying nothing. His face expresses all the grief he is feeling.

There’s been a backlash against Paul Haggis for being too lionized and too prolific. Yet Haggis is the screenwriter of, among others, CRASH and MILLION DOLLAR BABY. Haggis wrote the clever, immensely smart, CASINO ROYALE. I now see that others are sampling his style. Remember the terrific scene between Daniel Craig and Eva Green, each giving their take on the other’s back-story? Showtime’s “Californication” (a narcissistic David Duchovny glorifying his rumored oversexed drive)recently re-did the scene.

Haggis has the ability to write a dimensioned character, giving the character layers of intent. Theron, once again deciding that playing a real person is more gratifying than playing glamorous girlfriend roles, meets the challenge of supporting Jones, who has the flashier, more riveting role. As terrific as all the supporting actors are, it is fearless Frances Fisher who is a startling revelation as a topless bartender. The best explanation for nudity on screen comes from Harvey Keitel, who has appeared nude in THE PIANO and BAD LIEUTENANT. When asked about full-frontal nudity, Keitel said: “I’ve never done a nude scene.” He is right. His character was nude.

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