DOWN “IN THE VALLEY”

Wow! It’s been over three months since the author of this blog has put finger to keyboard, type to Skype (rhyming non-sequitur), thought to naught….

In that time frame, I have moved to another state, found a job (grammatically incorrect colloquialism – but its converse – “the job found me” – seems apt in this case), just spent a weekend in Reedy/Sleek (“headnote” for Orlando)….

What to write about?

Let’s get down to business – a movie review.

Last night, I saw “In the Valley of Elah” (E is pronounced as it is pronounced in the word “Ellen,” I think). The titular Biblical valley separated King David and his subjects (among them, a small boy named David) and the mighty monster Goliath. One day, little David, with nothing more than a slingshot, slayed (“rubbered”?) this mighty giant, reasoning that monsters do indeed exist, as do the generalities surrounding their alleged behavior, but also in existence are the collective cliches associated with that which defeats the monsters: courage.

Hank Deerfield, played by Tommy Lee Jones, repeats the David v. Goliath (“DVG”) tale to the son of a detective (Charlize Theron), as a kind of bedtime story. After the child listens raptly, he asks the Jones character a question: “Have you ever seen the monsteres?” “Yes.” “Have you defeated them?” “If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t be here.” Or something like that. Nice speech.

Hard not to think of the word “speech” when viewing a Paul Haggis film. “In the Valley” is Haggis’ sophomore directorial effort, his first try being the didactic, chess-like plotted (a plotting device that ultimately checkmated the film) “Crash.” That one was not big on subtlety; no big problem, necessarily, though, if your movie has something to say. “Crash” didn’t say much, but said it loud.

I fully expected to be given a haggis’ helping of sanctimony, moral cudgeling, and characters as story symbols when I came into the “Valley,” but was pleasantly surprised by this film’s remarkable sense of restraint.

Restraint, as the film opens, does not seem to be called for in Hank’s case. He has been notified that his son, Mike, who recently returned to the U.S. after an Army tour of duty in Iraq, is missing (“AWOL”). Hank, who lives in Tennessee, travels to Fort Rudd in the hopes of locating his son, or at least, locating information about his whereabouts.

Hank is a former MP, and in the film’s opening scenes, we see him calmly, curtly, and effectively question the military and civilian personnel who might have the information. He speaks with the leader of his son’s squad (James Franco). Nothing comes of it. After he is given the brush-off by the MPs, he turns to the civilian police. The detective assigned to his case (Charlize Theron) initially brushes him off too, but something then happens to make her more receptive to Hank’s queries: it is discovered that his son was knifed to death on the outskirts of the Fort Rudd area, where the civilian police have jurisdiction. This revelation serves as the spark for the development of a working relationship between the two that expedites the resolution of the question of the identity of the murderer.

Hank refuses to believe that any member of the squad could have committed the crime (“You serve with a man in war, you don’t just kill him), but as evidence mounts (apparently, Mike was drunk on the night of his death, got in a fistfight with another squad member), Hank and his wife (an underused Susan Sarandon) steel themselves for the worst – and in Hank’s case – the inconceivable: the notion that his son was killed and his limbs severed by fellow squad members as a result of something no more banal than a fistfight that got out of hand, or the consumption of alcohol or drugs.

The Army, in what should come as a surprise to easily persuadablefilmgoers below the age of 6, is not interested in determining the cause of death (it merely claims that the crime occurred within its “jurisdiction,” incorrectly. I kept waiting for Jones to say, “Oh shit, sheriff, I guess that means I’ll have to take over the investigation for you.”), even as we sense that several of the squad members and the MP in charge of the investigation (Jason Patric) know, at every turn, more than Hank, more than us, and more than they should have the right to.

The revelations of the details of the murders come as we periodically see grainy video-clip images from Mike’s cell phone, which the squad leader made the mistake of not removing from Mike’s locker. The images, each about a minute long, reveal chaos, shooting and screams of panic during an apparent gunfight between the squad and Iraqi civilians.

As these blurry images play out, several false leads work their way through, and, after we are served up some investigatory fits, starts and dead-ends, we are told, fairly well before the ending of the film, who did the deed, and why. In this observant, tonally astute film, however, the anatomy of the murder matters little; what Haggis unobstrusively makes matter is an exploration, revealed through questioning of the squad members, both formal and informal, of the toll that war takes on the human psyche. This exploration forms the heart of the film; characters’ motivations, actions, deceptions, and epiphanies swirl around it against what must be one of Jones’ best performances: make no mistake. He’s played taciturn and held-back before, but this is perhaps Jones’ first performance in which the actor’s slow-burn style – here used to expose, with nary a word, the character’s fears, regrets and ideas – comes from and aims for the heart.

Jones, superficially playing with as much tight-lipped coolness as ever, knows, as far as the investigation is concerned, exactly what questions to ask, and of whom to ask them, and pursues his investigatory task with glum yet determined efficiency. The task is approached somberly, grimly. Indeed, this film strikes a somber tone from its opening scenes, as if it knows something horrible has already happened and that this something has already consumed the characters without their even knowing it.

That “something,” of course, is the mental toll that the Iraq War (the film takes place during 2004, the year of the Fallujah “offensive”) has taken upon those who have fought in it, particularly upon younger soldiers. Haggis, though, instead of delivering a moral scolding of our leaders for allowing this toll to be exacted, SHOWS how it has been exacted, through a film that barely wastes a scene, that knows where it is going, and that knows how to get there.

Once the film does get there – once the murderer is identified, I became overwhelmed with feelings of grief, and of uselessness. We have been fighting this war, whose ill-explained and fraudulent rationale can barely be articulated by a President who insists that the consistency and intensity of his beliefs will ensure “victory,” without consideration of its costs – economic, political, or social. Over ten percent of returning soliders have been treated for Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome, and George W. Bush is telling aggrieved families not to sell soldiers’ medals on E-Bay. Funny.

Developments in modern warfare may create more military solutions (or, in this case, such developments might have, anyway, had our desire to fight a war were a fraction of our desire to start one), but create more problems as well. In this particular war, the “enemy” has, through the use of IEDs and, more importantly, the employment of a desire to defend their own land – a desire more powerful than a million such devices, and one that doomed us to fail before a single invading American boot was set on Iraqi soil.

The problems – torn limbs, torn psyches, and amputated spirits – visited upon those soldiers who are “lucky” enough to serve out their tours (one character without irony notes that he couldn’t stand being in Iraq but wanted to return within days of the end of his tours) are not being addressed by our leaders, or by our nation, whose conscience has faded into the netherland wherein lie the invisible pictures of caskets returning to home and public funerals which the President deems not worthy of his attendance.

The film ends with a simple (and overly simplistic, I’m afraid – to the point of introduction of heavy-handedness in the final scene) final series of images involving the unfurling of the America flag by a seeming foreigner, who is instructed by the Jones character as to the flag’s proper display. Hank, one can readily note, does not voice an opinion as to the rightness of the Iraq war, despite being given repeatedly the invitation to do so. We sense that he feels that it is not his place to engage in such seemingly unseemly conversation. As the final shot of the flag bows to a fade to black, however, the impact of what he has been feeling has been driven home as forcefully as our collective response to this punishing war has been silent. In the Valley of Elah is a film this country needs now – it is a film whose importance derives from, to paraphrase Roger Ebert, the fact that its story is nothing more – and nothing less – than about the fact that there are people dead as a result of this war, and that fact – not chances to induldge in ideological disputes, to impugn one’s patriotism, to create one’s own monsters by having a need to invent them – is what the war means to them and their loved ones. The deaths are being caused by monsters, both real and imagined, and the film eloquently mourns the absence of a David in the valley to make the monsters go away. A (four stars)

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