Haggis fumbles Elah in the end zone

by Glen Baity

Is there a more frustrating talent currently making movies than Paul Haggis? After seeing In The Valley of Elah, I honestly don’t think so.

He was high in the running after the combination of the exemplary (if overwhelmingly morose) Million Dollar Baby, which he wrote, and the overrated Crash, which he wrote and directed. Despite my feelings about the latter movie, a few things are obvious: Number one, that Haggis doesn’t shy away from big issues, which I appreciate, even if the result is a movie like Crash. And number two, that he has a gift for directing actors that places him in elite company.

If there’s any doubt in your mind, witness Tommy Lee Jones’ performance in Elah. He’s fantastic as Hank Deerfield, a retired military policeman who is informed at the beginning of the film that his son, Mike, a soldier on sabbatical from Iraq, has gone AWOL from his stateside base.

Hank sets out to look for his son, finding little evidence in the barracks, neither in Mike’s possessions nor in the statements of his buddies in the unit. But as the days roll on, it becomes apparent to Hank that this turn of events, wholly out of character for his son, points to something sinister.

You’re better off not knowing where the investigation takes Hank, but more compelling than the events of the plot is how Haggis is able to reveal pieces of his characters – through grudging confessions, grainy cell phone videos and family photos – at just the right times. Elah (named for the site of David’s battle with Goliath) is really a masterpiece of pacing and restraint, and there’s simply no combination that could pull it off as effectively as Jones and Haggis.

But really, his nuanced reading of the role makes the majority of Elah Jones’ show. There’s a smoldering rage under this character evident in even the slightest movement, but you’ll often have to pay attention to register it. The slow plot progression and sparse action gives the viewer plenty of time to study Jones’ performance; luckily, there’s plenty to be revealed.

Similarly effective, if underused, is Susan Sarandon, playing Hank’s wife Joan. She remains alone at the family’s house, waiting for a word from her notoriously distant husband. She makes the most of her few scenes to convey the constant anguish, all too familiar to military families, of not knowing. All of the above applies to the first hour or so, which is as good as any film this year. Elah spins its wheels a bit as Hank continues to hit dead end after dead end toward the close of the second act, and I began to wonder if the film would make it out of its rut. Of course, this is Haggis, and he loves an explosive ending. Suffice it to say, the reasons behind the disappearance are revealed, and yes, it’s quite shocking.

There is, however, something horribly wrong with the ending, and it’s all owed to the closing shot, which is obvious in all the ways the two hours preceding it are not. It’s really a shame: In The Valley of Elah is sublime in its subtlety for so long, and at the last minute Haggis all but steps in front of the camera and tells the audience what to think about what they’ve just seen. I’ve never seen a great film so marred by its final seconds.

That said, however, In The Valley of Elah is simply too good to be written off. It’s about the war at home, its events redrawn for the unprecedented conflicts of our time. We hear a lot these days about the sacrifices of military families, and rightly so; as the Deerfields, Jones and Sarandon convey that sacrifice in performances that are every bit as visceral as they are reserved. And even if you don’t agree with Haggis’ clearly stated point of view, give him credit for not shying away from it. A lot of people will find the ending of this film insulting and infuriating, but there are points raised here – the effects of post-traumatic stress and the state of veteran’s care, to name only two – that tend to be ignored in the larger discussion of the current War on Terror. Haggis, in his ultimately ham-fisted way, advises that we continue to do so at our collective peril. At the end of the day, it’s hard to disagree with him.

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