Saturday, December 15, 2007

In the Valley of Elah

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I'm not sure why many had loathed Paul Haggis' relatively recent meteoric rise. I had enjoyed most, if not all of his works that I have seen thus far, with his collaboration with Clint Eastwood nabbing Million Dollar Baby a best picture Oscar in 2005, and his own Crash, which was my movie of the year 2005, winning the same award in 2006. I guess with such success, the naysayers will usually be out in full force to make their voices heard, and I thought it's quite sad to have what I deem as stirring work so oft put down because of green eyed monsters.

Paul Haggis continues his run with co-writing and producing In the Valley of Elah. The valley is said to be the spot where biblical boy David met Goliath and defeated him with a sling shot, where other warriors had fallen before. And we all know what happened to David thereafter, with his growing popularity, and assassination attempt on him as well. In some ways, the movie tells of something in parallel, and alongside the many movies on the Iraq War, with the likes of Lions for Lambs, The Kingdom and Rendition, each focusing on different aspects of the same pie. In Elah, it takes quite a different turn. While inspired by true events, that bit of it comes from the experience and standing orders that the soldiers receive in convoy driving within a warzone. The story itself is set in a time with its players back from their active tour of duty, and is an surprisingly quiet and contemplative investigative drama rather than a ra-ra mouthpiece on the morality of war.

Tommy Lee Jones and Charlize Theron, both award winning actors in their own right, play the lead roles, and did a great job fleshing out their characters. We haven't seen Tommy Lee Jones on the big screen here for a while, so his presence is a major plus point, catching the thespian in action. He plays Hank Deerfield, an ex-army sergeant who is as hard noses as he is meticulous and disciplined. I guess after years of service in a uniformed group, you can't deny that some of the habits, good and bad, stick to you after discharge. His Hank is one experienced ginger, whose son Michael was discovered AWOL and missing, and he takes it upon himself as any good, responsible parent would, in trying to find out what exactly transpired. In doing so, he would have to rely on his cunning and wit to outsmart the system, and soon realizes that this is no longer the army that he belonged to anymore, with honor and integrity already thrown out of the window.

I suppose when one thinks of Charlize Theron, you can't help but remember her as a very blonde and very beautiful model. I won't be surprised that when she wants to be taken seriously in her roles, she either changes her hair style, color, or just tries to make herself fugly (remember Monster?), in order to fight against preconceived notions that she's just another beautiful face. Like her role in North Country, her Detective Emily Sanders also has to do battle with prejudice, discrimination and the glass ceiling, all these while being a single parent, and assisting Hank in cutting through layers of cover ups, and the determination of red herrings as the cop who requested to be assigned the case.

The chemistry between the two, who start off quite cooly, begin to heat up when they realize that their strength combined would prove to be an asset. Moreover, Hank required somebody on the system to be working it, while the other slowly opened up to the fact that she is here to assist a parent in seeking answers. For many scenes, you can't help but to think through - how would a parent react, or what would parents feel, each time they get confronted with certain pain that has befallen their child, who in their eyes will always be small and vulnerable. Parents sometimes do not know what their kid is up to, especially if the latter so decides to keep it under tight wraps, though whatever the case, they are always angels to the eyes of their parents. A parent's love knows no bounds, and you can see how such genuine concern gets exuded from Tommy Lee Jones' eyes. Partnering him in this aspect is Susan Sarandon in a supporting role as Hank's wife Joan, who has as powerful a scene she shared with Lee Jones in this regard, the stoic courage in the face of the inevitable.

If you're one who's game for investigative army dramas like Courage Under Fire (Denzel Washington and Meg Ryan), The General's Daughter (John Travolta and Madeleine Stowe) and even Basic (John Travolta again, and Connie Nielsen) as I am, then it is without a doubt you will add In the Valley of Elah into your list of mentionables. The slow unravelling of a whodunnit, following the investigator in their seeking of the truth, always bode well with me. And as such, while Haggis this time doesn't overwhelm with too many subplots and focused on the depth of the lead characters so wonderfully fleshed out by Lee Jones and Theron, this one's a winner. Can't wait for Tommy Lee Jones again in the Coen Brother's No Country for Old Men too!

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