In the Valley of Elah (U.S., 2007) * * 1/2
D: Paul Haggis
A vocal minority of critics hate the films of Clint Eastwood--in particular Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby--because they find them shamelessly manipulative and over-the-top melodramatic. I don't feel this way about Clint Eastwood, but about Paul Haggis. And incidentally, I've made a promise to myself that I would get through this review without saying "Hack-gis," so please keep me in check. Haggis wrote and produced Million Dollar Baby and wrote, produced, and directed Crash; the former was redeemed by superb performances and Eastwood's quiet, somber direction, but the latter was pure, unrestrained Haggis. Let me circle slowly toward the fatal flaw I see in Haggis' writing. If you can recall, in one scene late in Million Dollar Baby, the hospitalized Hillary Swank is visited by her greedy family, whose only concern is in getting their hands on her money. All at once a film which has been delicately establishing a sense of raw realism suddenly plunges into the world of a Dick Tracy comic strip, with the characters just as colorful and just as two-dimensional. This is how Haggis likes to treat his secondary characters: they serve the purposes of the plot, and are not meant to be convincing as real people; if you can't imagine them surviving outside the context of this scene, no matter. But for me, and a lot of people, the scene was a very serious flaw in an otherwise excellent film. (Many others just placed the blame on Eastwood, because that's what they liked to do.) With Crash, Haggis made his writing style perfectly clear. Crash had an ensemble cast to die for, stunning cinematography, and a script saddled with such ridiculous, caricatured racists that those two attributes were undone. In an interview with Newsweek, Haggis scoffed at his critics, saying something to the effect of (I'm paraphrasing by memory), "Sure, like there are no racists in Los Angeles." Yes, Haggis, there are racists in Los Angeles. But not everyone in Los Angeles is racist, which is the portrait that Crash paints. He's also a clumsy storyteller, so that when his plot takes a turn, you can hear the groans of the gears and see the spinning of the wheel. You're removed from the story, watching him take it on a predictable course. To put it another way, he might press your buttons, but you can see his fingers coming.*
So the only reason I saw a sneak preview of In the Valley of Elah was that it was free--and that I suspected, cynically, that it might get nominated for an Oscar, simply because Haggis had a tendency to win a few. I tried not to watch the film with my arms crossed; I wanted to have an open mind. For a while, I admired the film: there are some excellent opening scenes, quiet and reserved, in which Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones), a retired cop and the aging father of an American soldier deployed to Iraq, checks his email, answers the phone, learns that his son is back on American soil but has gone AWOL. Jones is an expert at skilfully underplaying, and naturally you're intensely drawn into his quest to determine what's happened to his son Mike. He learns, very early on, that Mike's been murdered: stabbed multiple times, cut into pieces, set on fire, and left by the side of the road not far from the army base. Soon he teams up with a local police detective (Charlize Theron) to solve the crime, which may or may not involve a drug deal gone bad.
Because the plot is that of a police procedural/murder mystery, and therefore outfitted with the structure of a genre, it's easy to lose yourself in the story, applaud whenever Hank sees clues that are bypassing the police, cheer when Theron sticks it to her chauvenist superiors, and gasp when the mystery takes its sudden turns. These are all cliches, but they're appealing cliches. And it's to the story's credit that ultimately the resolution to the mystery is one that defies genre conventions, for reasons I won't spoil here. That's not to say, however, that the resolution is any less predictable than what's come before. The heart of the film's problem is that every single scene contains a microcosm of conventional decisions, played to feel just right: the way the camera moves, or where it looks; the clever line to end the scene, and the moment that the scene cuts to the next. Jones and Theron are very good (Jones especially), but they've played these parts before, more or less, leaving you to seek out the little, fleeting moments when they seem to be trying out something new. I liked when Jones, restraining his grief while his wife unleashes her anguish over the phone to him, says, "I can't sit here and listen to you cry." He's sympathetic, but frustrated and impatient. Just think of what all these actors could've done if the script had given them more lines like this, lines they'd never said before. Instead, we're left with many scenes of Theron standing before a desk, screaming at male authority figures, becoming frustrated, leaving office, end scene.
This film is specifically about the dehumanizing effect the Iraq War is having on American soldiers. That point can't be missed, because there's not one, not two, but three atrocities which the film stews over: the first is the murder of Mike Deerfield, the second is not connected to the plot, but a domestic killing committed by another soldier, and the third I won't reveal, because it is revealed very late in the film. But the film can't sustain that third atrocity--not when you've already got such an appalling murder jockeying to carry so much emotional and thematic baggage. There's also the issue of the portrayal of Iraq War. As Haggis would have it, every soldier is a blank slate who is stamped by Iraq--a brutal hell in which soldiers gleefully torture prisoners--into an inhuman, amoral monster. Obviously war atrocities happen in Iraq all the time (another one is dominating the news today, regarding acts committed by armed guards of Blackwater USA), but Haggis' portrayal is limited in scope and exaggerated in style. The scenes of Iraq are gritty and violent but somehow manage to sacrifice realism. In a time in which "support the troops" has become an empty mantra, he gets points for bravery, making a film that dares suggest that soldiers can act very, very badly. But he goes so far to the other extreme that you get the feeling he'd be better suited to remaking Reefer Madness.
Part of the problem is that he's lacking telling details of the Iraq experience. Watch any documentary of the Iraq War--or listen to NPR coverage for a few minutes--and your head will be filled with little details of life as a soldier in Iraq that had never occurred to you before. I take no pride in feeling that I could write the Iraq scenes (depicted in grainy cell-cam videos and one brief flashback) as well or better than Haggis, but I'd rather he handed this material over to someone like Ridley Scott or maybe Werner Herzog, whose Rescue Dawn, while thematically very different, is filled with specific details that ring true to the viewer, and enlighten. Now, I understand perfectly that ninety percent of the film takes place on American soil, and sticks to the standard police procedural of a CSI drama. But the interviews with the shell-shocked soldiers, which form the framework of the story, could have provided so much more without detracting from the central argument of the film. Just because you're writing a social-issue film doesn't mean you can't reflect the human complexity of the issue you're dealing with.
There's good material in this film, but almost every scene features one over-the-top line written to hammer home Haggis' point, either for that scene or the film as a whole. You can track it, or make a drinking game out of it. Take a drink every time someone says something they'd never say in real life. My biggest compliment is that you won't wind up as completely plastered as if you'd played the same game for Crash.
*Oddly, none of Haggis' weaknesses were on display for his completely unpredictable treatment of James Bond in his screenplay for Casino Royale, a film I really liked.