Written by: Mike Caccioppoli, Feature Film Critic
Hank Deerfield notices the little things.
Like when the American flag is hanging the wrong way at the local school – he notices that, and he tells the superintendent, "When it hangs upside down it means we're in distress – get help immediately because we can’t help ourselves." He knows this because he's an American, a Tennessean, and a former military officer with two sons who have both fought in wars. But one of his sons has gone missing after returning from Iraq, and Hank (Tommy Lee Jones) sets out in his truck to his son's base in New Mexico to try and find him.
That's the setup for the shattering new movie In The Valley of Elah.
I’m writing this review just hours before President Bush will give his latest speech on the Iraq war. He'll tell us how well things are going but how a lot of "hard work" still lies ahead. It seems like we’ve heard that many times over the last four and a half years. I mention this because a deep sadness that runs through In the Valley of Elah that’s impossible to put out of our minds. It’s a sadness that Hank Deerfield will begin to feel stronger and stronger as his discovers what happened to his son. It’s the kind of feeling that you get when you find yourself stuck in a deep, dark tunnel and there's no light to be seen.
I can’t go into what happens to Mike (or why) because they both come as a surprise – especially the former, maybe not so much the latter. Hank arrives in New Mexico and finds to his surprise that the military is clueless and so is the local police department. The only person that shows any real interest in the case is the lone female detective on the force, played by Charlize Theron. Because she's a woman surrounded by idiot men, Theron's character usually gets stuck with all the worst cases. Meanwhile, Hank finds that he knows more about his sons than the local police and the military police combined, and that’s because back in his time, people actually cared about their jobs. He also discovers, much to his dismay, that everything he thought he knew about his country, the military and people in general was wrong.
I haven’t said much about Susan Sarandon, who plays Hank’s wife, and that’s because she spends most of the movie getting exposition from Hank over the phone. Don't get me wrong – Sarandon manages to make these weak scenes deeply felt and powerful, but I still wondered why they wasted her talent by sticking her on the phone. At first I thought that writer/director Paul Haggis (Crash) was showing us how the wives (and mothers) of soldiers have to deal with their pain alone and removed from the action. If that sounds too liberal for your blood, maybe you ought to check out another movie, because Haggis levies a stinging criticism at the military that will probably spark a round of conservative bloviation from the usual suspects, including fellow movie critic (and Seattle resident) Michael Medved. Anyone with a brain will realize that the film attacks the way that hatred and incompetence trickle down the chain of command from the highest levels. The film also distinguishes between the military of Hank’s time compared with our current leaders, including our commander in chief, who is never mentioned in the film.
Based on our results in Iraq, it’s hard to argue with the film's point of view, but I for one think it goes one step too far. You'll know what I'm talking about when you see how they resolve the son's disappearance.
In the Valley of Elah isn’t really a political film but more of a state of being. It captures the current feeling in our country the way films like Coming Home and The Deer Hunter did back in the 70s. It takes a conservative, patriotic military man like Hank and opens his eyes to what's really going on. If you look at the polls, you'll see that a lot of Hanks in this country are going through their own enlightenment. Tommy Lee Jones is so damn good in the role of Hank that he makes us want to cry as he realizes that the country that he once knew and still loves is no more. Jones has always been an internal actor, where others may lash out, he absorbs what he experiences and we can always see that he’s not only feeling but thinking as well. He never has to raise his voice to show us his intensity.
The final shot of In the Valley of Elah is one of the finest I've seen. It's so simple and perfect that it leaves us with a lump in our throats. It also makes everything that came before it even more clear and specific. Like everything that came before it, it’s also very sad but true. Paul Haggis has made a great, shattering movie that is head over heels better than his Oscar winner Crash. It is at once a eulogy and a cry for help for a country in distress.