Sunday, January 27, 2008

Outstanding drama marred by mis-judged ending - No! Not NO COUNTRY but IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH!

IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH is an obscure title for a deeply impressive and relevant film. It is about the impact of the Iraqi war on the boys fighting there and the families they leave behind. To that end, it covers similar ground to Brian de Palma's brutal, gonzo movie REDACTED and James C Strouse's delicate, mournful GRACE IS GONE. I think it's interesting that all of these films try to diffuse accusations of liberal bias by featuring characters who would call themselves conservative and pro-war. They are all forced to re-assess their attitudes to the Iraqi war by being pushed up close to it.

In IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH, a retired military officer called Hank Deerfield investigates the disappearance and then death of his younger son near a military base. He guilt-trips a local police officer called Emily into helping him. The movie has the superficial appearance of a police procedural but writer-director Paul Haggis isn't particularly interested in crafting a thriller. The investigation is a means for Hank and Emily to see first-hand how young men are transformed by their participation in a war being fought with only the trappings of traditional rules of engagement. They return home brutalised, their moral boundaries blurred. Formerly clean-cut young men become drug users; women are commodities. Despite self-medication, violence is only ever just beneath the surface.

Haggis' script is patient, well-observed and discreet. He never over-plays the situation. Charlize Theron's police officer deals quietly with sexual discrimation. Susan Sarandon's grieving mother is angry but not hysterical. Tommy Lee Jones' grieving father starts to crack with infinitesimal movements. It's a devestating performance.

The only problem with the film - but a fatal one - is the final set-piece. Haggis can't resist forcing a simplistic message onto his audience. It's a message that throws the careful balance of the rest of the film off kilter. And it's a gesture that seems quite out of keeping with the buttoned-down character of Hank Deerfield, despite the journey he's been on.

IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH played Venice and Toronto 2007 and was released in the US, Greece, Taiwan, Israel, France, Turkey, Italy, Romania and Singapore in 2007. It is currently on release in Latvia, Estonia, Mexico, Lebanon, Fiji, Finland, Spain, Portugal and the UK. It opens next week in the Netherlands and Russia. It opens later in February in Belgium, Denmark and Norway and ppens in Argentina and Germany on March 6th. It opens in Japan on April 12th.

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