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Movie Review: In the Valley of Elah

In the Valley of Elah
Written and directed by Paul Haggis from a story by Haggis and Mark Boal
Warner Bros.

Paul Haggis has become an annual Oscar-bait filmmaker, and it would be annoying if the films he helped create weren’t all that good.  But Haggis has a knack for memorable dialogue and not being too pretentious, and has been able to deliver movies that, while the award-baiting seems evident, there appears to be a better motive at work in making a solid, entertaining picture.

In the Valley of Elah is no different in this regard.  His first time behind the camera since Crash, Haggis tackles a movie reminiscent of Courage Under Fire, only the mystery takes place away from the battlefield.  But Haggis has some thoughts on the war in Iraq that are essential to the story, even chilling.

Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones) is looking for his son Mike (Jonathan Tucker), who has disappeared after a tour of duty.  Once a CID man, he launches an unofficial investigation, trying to get the help of the local authorities by appealing to Detective Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron), who says Mike’s disappearance is military jurisdiction.  When Mike’s body is found, it’s found on military property just outside the city limits, a murder case the police are very glad to hand over to the Army.

Hank appeals to Emily to let him see the murder site, and finds evidence that his son was murdered on city property and moved.  After that, the movie strangely becomes more of a character study than a mystery.  Hank has to deal with his emotionally-distraught ex-wife Joan (Susan Sarandon), who already lost a son many years ago to combat maneuvers, and Emily, the pretty face of the local police, has to deal with discrimination, red tape from military police lieutenant Kirklander (Jason Patric), and be a single mom on top of that.

So it is a character drama for the most part, with a mystery sort of playing as background, with the Iraq War even further in the background.  Eventually all of the loose ends are tied up in a manner that is so matter-of-fact it slaps you in the face.  I stared in disbelief when the truth finally came out; it certainly was a different delivery than I have been accustomed, and I believe that’s part of the point.

Great performances from Tommy Lee Jones and Charlize Theron (who I feel actually experiences the things her character does; she’s pretty so she must not be a “real” actress) keep this afloat, although I’m more inclined towards having a full-blown complex mystery to solve rather than taking a break to explore characters.  In the end, though, I was satisfied because it delivers a good conclusion.

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