Thursday, 18 December 2008

"In The Valley Of Elah". A Review Of The Film Starring Tommy Lee Jones, Susan Sarandon and Charlize Theron - Now On DVD.




"We're So Sorry For Your Loss Sir. If There's Anything We Can Do?"

"In The Valley Of Elah" isn't really a movie about the Iraq War - it's about the soldiers who return home from it - and the parents of those soldiers who don't return home at all.

Written and directed by PAUL HAGGIS who did the equally superb "Crash" and "Million Dollar Baby" - the movie is far less showy than "Rendition" and less posturing than the ridiculous "Lions For Lambs". And while "Elah" has an unfolding power in its carefully measured pace - it's also braver in its assessment of the American military and their less-than-angelic ways...

Tommy Lee Jones and Susan Sarandon play Hank & Joan Deerfield, the parents of a young soldier Mike Deerfield, who has inexplicably gone missing since his return from a tour in Bosnia and Iraq in November 2004. Hank visits the base where his son bunked, but neither Jason Patrick as Lieutenant Kirklander, James Franco as Sgt. Carnelli nor any of his division buddies are helpful - and worse - many seem unnerved - almost as if they're hiding something very nasty. A local beleaguered Detective in the police force, single-parent Emily Sanders (played by a superb Charlize Theron) gets embroiled in what she suspects is a grieving father being shafted by the canny US military. And without giving away too much, on the story goes...

One of the movies great strengths is of course the presence and capability of real heavyweights like Jones, Sarandon and Theron. Tommy Lee in particular is sensational. Just when you thought you'd seen every stone-clad grimace he can throw at you, for "Elah" he digs down deep and finds tremulous moments that floor you with their power and humanity. His character Deerfield is "army" - old-school values and discipline - he presses his trousers over a table to get the crease right - fixes an American flag that has been hanging upside down - calls all women 'mam' and won't be seen without a clean shirt on in front of any of them. Yet Hank is not naive either - he knows that his boy's tour of Iraq wouldn't have been without sickening cruelty or even dishonour. But what gives the movie its emotional core is his skill at depicting that. You can 'feel' his barely-contained lashing-out rage bubbling underneath - or when he just quietly sits in his pick-up truck in sad-eyed despair - why are American sons left in pieces on scrubs for wild animals to feed on - did I impose my ‘will' on my boy and force the army life on him - and why does civilian America not give a shit about any of it?

There's a scene where Sarandon walks away with her husband down a corridor - there's no music - just them walking away - her hand outstretched in disbelief. The camera stays stationary - watching them walk away in silence - and you know the buckle into his arms is going to come - you know it - and yet when it does - it still has the power of real hurt.

Theron is great too - one of the most intelligent actresses working in Hollywood today - she has her beauty toned down by dowdy dark hair and clunky uniforms - and it works - you concentrate on her first rate acting. There's a scene when she hugs her sleeping son at night who needs the bedroom door open because he's scared - she hugs him close - thankful that he is not another statistic of some ignored list somewhere - you 'feel' what is precious to us - and the utter devastation of having that link to our very soul taken away...

The supporting cast is also universally superb - really good actors in a quality film given quality material to work with - and they know it. Jason Patrick gets his best part in years as the Forces spokesman trapped between the two worlds of the Army's need to cover up and the public's need for the truth; Josh Brolin plays the local Police Chief, weary of unsolved cases and ever so slightly disinterested, but a man who knows that his female detective will terrier out the ugly no matter what. Barry Corbin (of Northern exposure fame) puts in a touching old-army buddy cameo with Tommy Lee in a café, while Jake McLaughlin and Mehcad Brooks are idealistic and young as the 'just following orders' grunts. Wes Chatham in particular is chillingly fantastic as Corporal Penning - detached and jauntily psychotic as he discusses how hungry he gets after a good day's killing...

"In The Valley Of Elah" is a phrase from the Bible parable about David and Goliath - where David must beat his fear of the monster - and win. "Elah" is neither jolly nor pretty - but it has amazing truths in it. I thought it was an exceptional movie and it stayed with me long after I pressed the stop button. Much like war and its aftermath I suspect...

Put this film high on your ‘must-see' list and well done to all the good people involved.

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