Saturday, February 23, 2008


The weight of the world on his shoulders

By Edward Copeland
There's a stillness, a rigidity in Tommy Lee Jones' portrait of Hank Deerfield in In the Valley of Elah, a seeming paralysis that makes any time Hank actually moves, whether it's rocking during a phone call or revealing a bottle of booze, mesmerizing. Unfortunately, one great performance does not a good movie make and as spellbinding as Jones is here, his talent alone can't support the film's inner flimsiness.

Writer-director Paul Haggis' In the Valley of Elah strives to be both personal and profound as it tells the story of a father's search for answers when his soldier son ends up slain following his unit's return from Iraq.

I was not one of the many who reacted so violently against Haggis' Oscar-winning directing debut Crash, but in Elah, Haggis' attempt at "being important" comes off as hamhanded and awkward. It doesn't help that while the story wanders through the desert, most moviegoers will be far ahead of where it's going.

The film doesn't really have anything new to say about war, Iraq or post-traumatic stress that hasn't been said better in other countless works. In fact, when it gets to the "revelation" at the end, the first thing I thought of was not the horrors of the Iraq war but the finale of TV's M*A*S*H, where you ask yourself how, after all the terrible things Hawkeye had seen over the years, that is what finally pushes him over the edge.

Haggis also loads down the film with a by-the-numbers "woman struggles in a man's world" subplot involving Charlize Theron as a police detective whose male colleagues assume slept her way to her position. At times, if Theron weren't brunette in Valley of Elah, you might think you were watching deleted scenes from North Country.

All of this is a shame because Tommy Lee Jones is so damn good in this film. When his name was called on Oscar nomination day, I was surprised since In the Valley of Elah had seemed to sink like a rock. Now that I've seen it, I shouldn't have been, because Jones delivers one of his very best performances here. Unfortunately, it comes in a movie that really doesn't deserve it.

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