For many, the jury is still out on Paul Haggis. The erstwhile television scribe turned Oscar-winner has certainly built an impressive resume in a short time, including partial or full screenwriting credit on four of the most acclaimed studio movies of recent years: Clint Eastwood's magnificent three-film run of "Million Dollar Baby," "Flags of Our Fathers," (okay...eh...) and "Letters from Iwo Jima," plus the genuinely awesome Bond flick "Casino Royale." But Haggis's colossally stupid directorial debut "Crash," despite its Best Picture victory, hardly delivered on the promise suggested by his other successes--it's difficult to imagine the same person being involved in Eastwood's searing boxing drama and that pompous race screed on any level, much less in a major authorial role. Muddying the waters and splitting the difference (to mix my metaphors--hey, if Haggis can do it, so can I) is his directorial follow-up, "In the Valley of Elah," a mostly inoffensive detective film that's also a confused prestige picture about American soldiers fighting in Iraq.
Tommy Lee Jones is Hank Deerfield, a retired veteran whose son, a soldier serving in the war, disappears while back in the States on leave. Hank takes it upon himself to track his son's whereabouts--he's a crackerjack investigator--and enlists the help of conscientious detective Emily Sanders (a mannered Charlize Theron, overexerting herself). Throughout the investigation, Emily and Hank face opposition, both subtle and overt, from army officials, as well as Emily's male colleagues and superiors. For the most part, Haggis sticks to the investigation plot and relegates Iraq to the status of literal white noise (CNN and George W. Bush are often visible or audible in the background), before making an outrageously unmotivated political statement with the film's final image. Though somewhat reminiscent of Rob Reiner's "A Few Good Men" and Edward Zwick's "Courage Under Fire," "Elah" strikes a more somber and serious tone, and as a result, occupies a strange middle ground: as a straightforward genre picture, it's plodding and dull, but as timely political intervention, it's too diffuse. "Elah" ends up being about many things and nothing at the same time.
The movie's title refers to the Biblical location of David's famous fight with Goliath. As Haggis deploys that story, it serves as a kind of catch-all metaphor for standing one's ground against the odds and also for putting children in harm's way: Depending on how you read it, Hank and Emily are the Davids standing up to the army's Goliath; or Hank, and presumably we, are the Israelites, too willing to sacrifice the young Davids serving in our military to a political cause; or America itself is the Goliath to Iraq's David--an admittedly tenuous interpretation, though the film unexpectedly turns on the fate of an Iraqi child. Unlike "Crash," which sacrificed nuance for focus, reducing every possible conflict to a question of race, "Elah" grazes many provocative issues--masculinity, parenthood, war, the military, Iraq--without thoroughly engaging any of them. Since it's based on a true story, the film's resistance to thematic tidiness (again, until its egregious finale) is admirable, but it feels frustratingly underwritten--as though the screenplay, built around the kernel of a good idea, could have used half-a-dozen rewrites before the cameras rolled. (As for the cinematography, well, who's to judge? Though this film was shot by the brilliant DP Roger Deakins, the screening I attended, completely official and on the up-and-up, didn't involve a film print at all, but that's an issue for another day.)
"Elah" comes most clearly into focus when it fashions itself as a meditation on parental guilt and grief. In a glorified cameo as Hank's wife, Susan Sarandon nails the film's best scene (a fairly superfluous one) in which she effectively bears witness to her son's fate. Jones strikes a stark contrast to Sarandon's heart-tugging emoting as the stoic, whip-smart military man. He exudes decency and grace, praying at the dinner table with Emily and her son, and averting his eyes from a bare-chested woman when in a strip club. Jones's Hank is almost an anachronism: though a veteran of the Vietnam era, he's a God-fearing patriot whose unwavering convictions reflect a certainty we tend to associate with a time before that horrible conflict. Haggis's film charts Hank's journey from certainty to uncertainty and from conviction to confusion, and Jones, delivering one of his finest performances, almost makes Haggis's improbably telegraphed transformation believable.
[Chris Wisniewski is a Reverse Shot staff writer, a regular contributor to Publishers Weekly, and education coordinator at the Museum of the Moving Image.]