Director/writer Paul Haggis distinguishes himself with his latest film, In the Valley of Elah, starring Tommy Lee Jones and Charlize Theron, with a cameo by Susan Sarandon.
Haggis’ film unfolds as a murder mystery with key pieces of the puzzle needing to be found, giving rise to grief, anger and edgy humor. Dialogue is spare and lean. The film is free of the abrasiveness which characterized his earlier film, Crash. However, the impact of Elah is far greater.
Tommy Lee Jones gives his richest performance yet as a retired Army sergeant hailing from that part of America mostly invisible to us — highway motels, strippers working outside military bases, and whiskey drunk from dixie cups. Gone is the wisecracking federal marshal in pursuit of an elusive fugitive in earlier films. Stoic and polite, the retired MP still knows what he knows in Elah, and his sarcasm surfaces readily when incompetence and politics hinder the investigation of his son’s murder. Safely back from the front in Iraq, and he is killed on U.S. soil. This grieving father will not be stonewalled.
Charlize Theron cotinues to impress by playing against type and seeking gritty roles in films like Monster and North Country. Here she is a single mother intent on keeping the best job she could find in her town, despite the toll it takes on her emotionally.
In a cameo as Army wife and mother, Susan Sarandon shines. She insists on seeing her son’s body, which the military and her husband try to prevent. Taking precautions, the Army requires her to view his remains through a closed window, and a chair is placed behind her in case she needs it. Standing still as a soldier on duty, she gazes through the window, speaks two soft sentences and gestures once; and we are moved beyond words.
Investigating the Iraq vet’s death takes us through strange and unsanitary landscapes. How do we prepare these youths for their tour of duty in Iraq? What do we do for them when they return, so fresh from the battlefield that they still hear the screams? Experiencing how this father handles these revelations is a lesson and a challenge for us all as we approach 2008.