At the 2006 Academy Awards, “Crash” pulled off one of the greatest upsets in Oscar history, slipping past heavyweight “Brokeback Mountain” to seize Best Picture. Now nearly two years later, writer/director Paul Haggis returns with his directorial follow-up. Instead of tackling the ugly realities of racism again, he turns his attention to a different but equally sensitive topic — the war in Iraq.
During his first weekend back from serving in Iraq, Mike Deerfield (Jonathan Tucker) mysteriously disappears. When his parents (Tommy Lee Jones, Susan Sarandon) are alerted of this disquieting news, his father, Hank, a former military man, travels to the base to help track him down. Once he arrives, things begin to look increasingly discouraging, and the evidence piles up suggesting his son was murdered. With the help of a local police detective (Charlize Theron), Hank attempts to uncover the truth behind the shocking act, no matter how dark it might be.
The driving force behind the film is Tommy Lee Jones, who turns in one of the best-rounded performances of his storied career. While his character never strays too far from those he is well known for (“The Fugitive,” “Men In Black”), there is an element of brokenness to his demeanor which makes this one different. His grave facial expressions insinuate a sorrowful past, stemming from the loss of his elder son to overseas combat. This adds an additional dimension to his rough and tough persona, as well as casting his forthcoming violent outbursts in a new light.
Theron, while not given as much to work with as Jones, delivers as both a haggard cop and a single mother. She is limited to working almost solely on the investigation yet infuses a likeable personality into the part, keeping us involved.
The rest of the ensemble provides good performances, although some are never developed. James Franco as an army officer and Sarandon as Jones’ wife serve as little more than footnotes in Jones’ journey. The movie squanders a great opportunity to contrast the crisis from Sarandon’s viewpoint, a valued component that the similar-minded film “In The Bedroom” skillfully demonstrated.
With strong acting on display, the film’s main downfall lies in the writing department. Much of the run time follows the slow-trodden investigation, and the meticulous pacing is sure to garner complaints. When the big mystery is finally resolved at the end, it also lacks the level of fulfillment that “Crash” excelled at.
Haggis takes a subtler approach to develop his themes this time around, focusing on the characters and choosing to let things unfold in front of their eyes. He shows a growing maturity in that regard, and this more organic storytelling is certainly a step in the right direction. The message responds by being less heavy-handed than “Crash,” save for the last scene, but no one will leave the theater without knowing where Haggis stands on the issue.
On the other hand, the emotional response and insight which made “Crash” so powerful are largely absent here. While we feel for Jones’ character, we never get a chance to connect with any of the soldiers, failing to understand them below a surface level. This is ultimately were the movie fails.
Its arguments against war and the personal damage it causes centers on these soldiers’ responses. When this aspect fall shorts, the whole story crumbles as a result. It doesn’t help that similar themes have been explored in countless war stories — the superb “All Quiet On The Western Front” immediately springs to mind — making it all the more apparent when Haggis stumbles.
Coming off the major success of “Crash,” “In The Valley Of Elah” can only be considered a disappointment. First off, it never reaches the heights of the former or resonates as profound an emotional chord. It is also plagued by many of the same problems as the Haggis-penned “Flags Of Our Fathers,” stalling in its quest to portray war in a rarely-seen setting. Despite a brilliant effort on behalf of Jones and an ambitious attempt from Haggis, these missteps are difficult to ignore.