The CRASH Loving MiraJeff Wishes He Could Live Forever IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH!!
Published at: Sept. 6, 2007, 9:57 a.m. CST by merrick
Greetings AICN. I hope you’re in the mood for a love letter because my name is MiraJeff and I loved Crash.
There, I said it and I’m not even sorry. In fact, you guys are the ones who should be sorry. If there’s one thing above all else that I’ve never understood about the AICN community in general over the past few years, is its venomous, vitriolic, intense burning hatred for Crash and its two-time Academy Award-winning co-writer and director, Paul Haggis. Anytime I mention my admiration for that film, the haters come out to play in the talkbacks, a fact I’m sadly resigned to by now. I fully expect to hear from you guys below, by the way. Can’t wait.
To me, Crash was far and away the Best Picture of 2005. Only Brokeback Mountain and Munich came near it, but to be honest, neither one hit me with the emotional uppercut that Crash did. That’s just the way Haggis’ stories operate. They don’t jab, jab, jab wearing you down. They swing for the fences, go for the BIG moments, and personally, I don’t see anything wrong with that. Its critics accuse Haggis of laying it on too thick, but some audiences need that to get the point and see the bigger picture. To me, Crash had moments of such transcendent power that I still get all teary-eyed whenever Michael Pena ties the invisible cloak around his daughter’s neck or Matt Dillon saves Thandie Newton from a burning car.
The reason I bring all this Crash stuff up is because if you hated Crash, you’ll probably take issue with Haggis’ latest film, In the Valley of Elah. But for those of you who are as passionate about Crash’s excellence as I am, well, you folks are in for quite a treat. As of this writing, In the Valley of Elah is one of the absolute best films of the year, alongside The Lives of Others, Zodiac and Once.
Based on a Mark Boal article in Playboy, Elah stars Tommy Lee Jones as Hank Deerfield, a retired military police officer whose youngest son, Mike, goes AWOL from the Army following his return from the front lines of Iraq. The film follows Hank as he investigates Mike’s disappearance with the help of a local cop played by Charlize Theron. I keep using “Mike” because it’s important that we know his name. He’s not just some nameless soldier who became an overseas statistic. This was a boy with a mother and a father and a dream of helping people who was killed on his own soil for what amounts to no apparent reason. And credit Haggis for being less interested in the why Mike was killed than the how he was killed. Ultimately, there is no reason why. But there are two answers for the how.
The first, more literal minded answer is that Mike Deerfield was stabbed to death. It is unclear how many times he was stabbed because his body was later dismembered, burned and eaten by wild animals, but the medical examiner can count 42 points where the sharp metal knife was plunged deep enough to nick bone. That is the ugly, literal how. The real question is, how does something like that happen in the first place? It’s not important what Mike’s killer was thinking at the time, it’s how does that person come to think and act like that. And the answer comes in the form of this important anti-war film that masquerades as a police procedural before its final shot in which it allows itself to wear its bleeding liberal heart on its sleeve. Though Elah devotes very little screentime to the war in Iraq, it manages to say more about war than most ‘war films’ do. It speaks to the tragic aftermath of veteran soldiers lost in their own country. And its structure is particularly impressive in that it delivers an incredibly personal story of human strength by way of an absorbing investigation filled with more twists and turns (and the occasional plot contrivance) as anything real life could come up with.
It’s impossible to discuss Elah without mentioning the final shot, which regardless of your politics, is bound to divide audiences. Allow me to paint you a picture. Early in the film, after he leaves his house and sets out on a journey to find the truth. Hank pulls over to re-raise an American flag being flown upside down from a school flagpole. Hank says that an upside-down flag is a distress signal from people who can’t save themselves, and explains how an upside-down flag means something terrible has happened to the country. At the end of the movie, on his way home, Hank stops by the same school and re-raises the flag again. The camera lifts up and we see an upside-down flag, whipping in the wind.
Even though I personally felt it was a little much, I wouldn’t go so far as to say it was preachy or heavy-handed. After what Hank goes through over the course of this film, it’s understandable why he does this, although people will argue about whether it not it fits his character. Personally, I just think it was unnecessary and that Haggis had already said what he wanted to say. A more appropriate ending might have had the flag flying the proper way, with Hank trying to honor what his son stood for and why he decided to enlist in the first place—democracy. But Haggis isn’t shy about condemning the war and questioning its effect on the young men and women who so bravely risk their lives to defend this nation’s freedom. I think some restraint would’ve served the film better but it didn’t affect what I took away from it either. I think its significant merit and achievement can be appreciated regardless of what you think of the final shot. As political as some people may interpret that shot, I don’t think of the rest of the film that way. It’s about every father’s greatest fear and every mother’s worst nightmare and it will have no problem resonating with audiences, especially those in the heartland for whom this film may hit closer to home.
Haggis’ message is heard loud and clear. Young soldiers should not be sent off to fight an unnecessary war and the ones who make it back are having difficulty adjusting. And the problem is just as much ours as it is theirs because there is no on-off switch. One-day soldiers live in a world where survival is an everyday struggle and the next day they’re home in the States, expected to make a relatively smooth transition back into society. Home of the Brave tried to explore similar themes though that film’s message was, at times, lost in translation. Here, there’s no doubt about how Haggis wants us to feel, although there will be much debate about his intention with that final image, and whether it’s too ham-fisted, much in the same way people accuse Crash of being. Hammering the audience over the head is Haggis’ style but in Crash, it never felt like he was forcing it. In Elah, as fantastic as it is, the final shot seems to suggest Haggis going out of his way to communicate his feelings as explicitly as possible, but that’s entirely his prerogative.
But forgetting about that closing image for a moment, Haggis is still not above criticism. The climactic confession scene comes up severely short, and serves as a laughably weak payoff to a much more interesting mystery. The killer’s motive is so insulting it’s as if Haggis is demonstrating contempt for his audience, but perhaps that’s the point. Haggis is questioning the very nature of the good ol’ American boy, which he suggests is rather two-faced. The young veterans in this film will smoke and drink with Hank and tell them they’re sorry right to his face but their sympathies are mired in guilt and self-disgust, angry at themselves for what they’ve become, what they’ve allowed themselves to be turned into. Instinctual instruments of death, so focused on surviving at all costs, they don’t hesitate to actually identify the enemy. There are also some minor quibbles, such as Charlize’s motivation for helping Hank. I mean, I know she has a son and there are obvious parallels that but it’s not quite clear what Charlize has to gain aside from a clear conscience. Hank is so stodgy towards her character, it seems she’s only inspired to prolong the investigation out of a sense of guilt for not listening to Hank in the first place. Theron is her usual strong self but she isn’t given much meat to chew on aside from a few blowups with her superiors. She disappears into the role and in a way, deflects attention to Jones’ character where it belongs, but ultimately her character was too passive for my taste. Hank is always one step ahead of her and when she finally does catch up, it’s too late.
There’s also the question of why Mike sent a flag home in a package that was addressed to himself when the photo inside has ‘For Dad’ written on the back, as if Mike just knew he wouldn’t be able to give it to him himself. It’s also unclear why Hank chooses that flagpole at that school to suddenly maintain out of some weird act of patriotism. If that’s where Mike went to school I guess it makes more sense but if it was just a random flagpole, then I’m not sure I understand the symbolism. Aside from a few other convoluted instances, including a drug-related red herring that Haggis includes to throw us off the scent and keep us interested in the story of a dead boy we know next to nothing about besides the people who love him. Still, these are all minor criticisms of mine, except for the capital-A Awful Annie Lennox song that closes the film, which is the only major mistake Haggis makes here. Mark Isham’s beautiful, elegant score would’ve been much more fitting than the whiny mess Haggis chooses to fade out on.
(END SPOILER ALERT)
There are still plenty more ‘prestige’ pictures to see but as of this writing, In the Valley of Elah is guaranteed to be among the five Best Picture nominees if it’s not already the film to beat. The performances are simply astounding across the board. I haven’t seen No Country For Old Men but Tommy Lee Jones gives his best performance here since The Fugitive won him an Oscar in 1993. His weary eyes speak volumes about Hank and I will be shocked if he doesn’t get a nomination this year. Likewise, Susan Sarandon has to be considered a shoo-in for a supporting nod. As the grieving mother, she’s given the most dramatic moments and she aces them like a pro, her big, watery eyes saying more than any line of dialogue possibly could as she identifies what is left of her son.
Speaking of Mike, Jonathan Tucker is absolutely fantastic in just a few brief minutes of screentime. He has come such a long way since he played Tommy Marcano in the adaptation of my all-time favorite book, Sleepers, and this film continues his breakout campaign. I admit, I didn’t think he was great on The Black Donnellys (or anyone else), but I see no reason why he can’t be as big as his contemporaries Emile Hirsch and Shia LaBeouf. The rest of the supporting cast, including the 4 J’s – Jason Patric, Josh Brolin, James Franco and Jake McLaughlin, all do solid supporting work, but the most impressive newcomer has to be Wes Chatham, who more than manages to hold his own opposite Jones, which isn’t always easy to do. Just ask Steven Seagal. (I apologize ahead of time for that lame attempt to inject some humor into this incredibly depressing, already-to-long review.)
As for Haggis, he shows significant improvement behind the camera. There’s no Sandra Bullock falling down the stairs moment here. The direction is much more assured and there are some wonderful compositions here, for example, a long shot of Hank and his wife holding each other after viewing Mike’s remains together. The writing is confident and has much more on its mind than just pushing buttons. And though it doesn’t pack the emotional wallop of Crash, it is probably the more accomplished film because Haggis is maturing as a filmmaker. He’s bound to be recognized again by the Academy for his writing and directing efforts, and when all is said and done, I have little doubt that Elah will also be recognized as one of the year’s best pictures.
That’ll do it for me, folks. I’ll be back with a look at David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises, Mike Cahill’s King of California, Larry Fessenden’s The Last Winter and Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford. That’s a pretty good group of films right there, so stay tuned.
‘Til next time, this is MiraJeff signing off…