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Downer in the Valley

In the Valley of Elah, Dir. Paul Haggis, Now playing

“Support our troops!” It’s a meaningless slogan, yet it hasn’t lost its power to keep honest talk about the Iraq war—how we got into it and how we’ll ever get out—confined to the margins of American politics. Now In the Valley of Elah, one in a growing list of movies critical of the U.S. war on terror, explores some of the dilemmas papered over by the sloganeering.

It was written, produced, and directed by Paul Haggis, who won the 2005 Academy Award for Best Picture for Crash. For his next project, Haggis was reportedly determined to take maximum advantage of his Oscar juice and choose something too controversial for anyone else to take on. Despite some missteps, the film he’s come up with is a moving, sometimes wrenching effort to face up to one of the ugliest aspects of the Iraq invasion: its effect on the troops and, by implication, the nation whose dirty work they’re doing.

Haggis based his story on a true-crime saga, written for Playboy by Mark Boal in 2004, about a father who went searching for his son after the boy returned stateside from combat in Iraq and went AWOL. Where Crash cleverly intertwined multiple characters and stories, Elah is a straight-ahead drama cast in the form of a whodunit.

Beauty and the beast: Tommy Lee Jones and Charlize Theron face off. Photo courtesy Warner Independent Pictures, Lorey Sebastian © 2007 Elah Finance V.O.F.

What anchors and drives the film is Tommy Lee Jones’ performance as Hank Deerfield, the Vietnam vet father who must confront what has happened to his Iraq vet son. Jones plays the part as a study in anguished self-control, a dissertation on how much anger, guilt, and grief a man can endure without cracking. His crumpled face becomes the battlefield on which the yearning to believe America’s soldiers are the incarnation of our highest ideals dukes it out with the knowledge that sometimes they also embody our worst impulses.

Deerfield’s foil and companion on his journey is police detective Emily Sanders, played by Charlize Theron, whom he encounters when he comes to the small New Mexico town that hosts the military base where his son was last seen. A single mom at the bottom of her squad’s pecking order, Sanders initially dismisses Deerfield as one more hopeless waste of time in a job that’s mired in hopelessness. Like him, she has learned to suck up the pain life doles out and to equate fellow-feeling with weakness. But as they forge a tentative bond—she too has a son, although hers is only a little boy—she comes to see that helping Deerfield might boost her shaky self-respect as well as her standing with the other detectives.

Theron plays the part with toughness and a minimum of vanity, her hair scraped into a skimpy tail and her body encased in personality-free blazers and slacks. Still, given how real everyone else in the movie seems, her beauty is jarring. Jones looks like hell, lit so that every pouch and crease on his face is deep as an arctic crevasse, his mouth collapsed into a simian, my-teeth-hurt frown. In other words, he comes across like a real former Army sergeant who’s now driving a gravel truck, rather than a leading man. Even though Theron’s cracked-out performance in Monster proved she’s up to the job of looking like the rest of us, in Elah she remains a movie star, albeit one traveling incognito. Too bad, because Elah would have been an even better movie if both leads were as candidly un-pretty as Jones is—if the only beautiful people on the screen were the handsome young soldiers just returned from the killing fields.

That quibble aside, the performances are terrific. Particularly noteworthy are Susan Sarandon’s heartbreaking turn as Deerfield’s wife and Jason Patric’s nicely low-key depiction of an Army lieutenant trying to keep a lid on the truth. The young men who play Deerfield’s son and his buddies—some are real-life vets—are a revelation, showing us in a few short scenes the charisma, camaraderie, and horror of the warrior role.

The movie takes place mostly in the grimy bars, strip clubs, and diners that surround Fort Rudd, where Deerfield’s son Mike and other soldiers returning from their tours in Iraq are welcomed back to life in these United States. Everything looks faded, ratty, used up—an impression reinforced by the snippets we hear about how drunkenness, drug abuse, and crime are seen as unavoidable ways for combat troops to let off steam. The even more desolate landscape of Iraq figures in, too, thanks to videos from Mike’s cell phone, which a computer tech partially unscrambles and e-mails to Deerfield Senior. Jagged and disconnected, they hint at the terror and mayhem a war zone unleashes on soldiers and within them.

In the Valley of Elah isn’t about vast conspiracies; it recognizes that incompetence, laziness, and reflexive cover-your-ass dishonesty can achieve what a conspiracy never could. Nor is the movie’s message that war is hell; its story is told from the point of view of an old soldier who so believes in the military’s higher calling that he’s still making his bed every morning with hospital corners.

Instead, Haggis’ film acknowledges the extraordinary costs of the particular kind of combat we’ve embroiled ourselves in, a war not of defense or liberation but of occupation. One of the video clips from Mike’s cell shows him and the other GIs tossing a football to some Iraqi children, only to react with fury when the kids catch the ball and run away. Later one of his mates tells Mike’s father that at first he thought they could do some good in Iraq, but no more. “We should just nuke the place and waste ’ em all,” he says pleasantly.

The desire for revenge is one of our primal drives, and few drugs are as intoxicating as a rush of self-righteous anger. Hence the revanchisme that has taken over so much of our political life and the popularity of revenge movies that give the hero justification to kill and maim and the audience an excuse to thrill to the gore. (Jody Foster’s vehicle The Brave One is a loathsome case in point.)

In the Valley of Elah is an anti-revenge story, and in this day and age that marks it as truly brave.

Jones portrays the kind of quiet machismo we’re used to seeing as heroic, so as we watch Hank Deerfield take it and take it, we’re waiting for him to erupt. When at last he does, his rage is saturated with the same excitingly vengeful xenophobia that made the Iraq war so sellable. But far from being a delicious release, Deerfield’s explosion turns out to be an ugly mistake that he must struggle with himself to atone for. And in the end, what he discovers about his son makes vengeance tragically beside the point.

The movie’s falsest note comes at its close, in a final scene that clumsily patches in a bit of pseudo uplift as Annie Lennox warbles about lost children on the soundtrack. Maybe Haggis’ Oscar clout had faded and at that point he couldn’t stop the focus groups from taking over.

Also unfortunate is the awkward title, which unmistakably stamps the movie as art-house fare no red-blooded red-stater would bother with. It refers to the place where the boy David, armed only with five stones, fought and killed the monster Goliath. Within the movie’s frame the Bible story is told as a tribute to the warrior virtues of courage and willingness to sacrifice. But as the film unreels, we’re reminded that once a nation launches itself into a real-life war, the line dividing the righteous and the monstrous becomes harder and harder to find.


Tessa DeCarlo

Tessa DeCarlo claims to have a few illusions remaining.


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2007

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