Parables substitute for drama in Paul Haggis' follow-up to Crash

In the Valley of Elah

on September 14, 2007 by Kevin Courrier
Taking its title from the Biblical story of David and Goliath—three guesses as to who's David and who's Goliath— In the Valley of Elah applies the parable to the current troubles in Iraq. Although more seamless and less contrived than writer/director/producer Paul Haggis' Academy Award winning Crash , the picture offers little more than an earnest civics lesson.

A career officer in New Mexico, Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones) learns that his son Mike (Jonathan Tucker), who is serving in Iraq, has gone AWOL. When Hank discovers that the boy was murdered, he engages a local police detective (Charlize Theron) to investigate the strange circumstances surrounding his son's death.

While addressing one of the biggest moral and political predicaments of our time, In the Valley of Elah steers clear of the messy and complex politics that polarize social discourse today. Neatly designed as a popular melodrama, the picture aims to "heal" our social and political tensions, the same way Crash set out to "heal" the racial anxieties of Los Angeles. But in doing so, Haggis presents the war in a strangely de-politicized culture that doesn't engage us in a larger worldview. In part, the movie seems to be saying that without the Iraq war, all would be well in the American psyche.

Despite the wetness of the material, Jones manages to give a solid, dry-eyed, sober performance—an honest portrayal of a decent army man confronting some of the indecent elements in the current crisis. Unfortunately, Susan Sarandon has the thankless role of the hand-wringing wife, a cliché Haggis seems to have dug out from among mothballs of the virtuous war films of the ‘40s. Meanwhile, Theron works hard playing a single mom up against her crude male colleagues in the police force, but she's burdened by the mechanics of the plot.

Ultimately, In the Valley of Elah offers easy parables rather than dramatic insight.

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Distributor: Warner Independent
Cast: Tommy Lee Jones, Charlize Theron, Susan Sarandon, Jason Patric, James Franco and Frances Fisher
Director/Screenwriter: Paul Haggis
Producers: by Laurence Becsey, Paul Haggis, Patrick Wachsberger, Steven Samuels and Darlene Caamano
Genre: Drama
Rating: R for violent and disturbing content, language and some sexuality/nudity
Running time: 124 min.
Release date: September 14, 2007 ltd., September 21 exp.
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