Tuesday, September 27, 2011

In the Valley of Elah

Paul Haggis is probably most famous for writing and directing the Oscar-winning film Crash. I was a huge proponent of the film for a long time. Upon repeat viewing and further thought, it doesn't age well. Initially, the emotional impact is huge. Looking back on the technical aspects, one can see how blatant Haggis pushed those responses with musical swells and compression. There's more than one story in the film that doesn't need sandwiched in. It's a good film. I won't argue against that.

Watching In the Valley of Elah, Haggis's followup to Crash, I kept these trends in mind. For much of the film, Haggis shows refreshing restraint. This is a quiet and deeply felt film. For the first two acts, Tommy Lee Jones (as the film's lead, Hank Deefield), anchors a well-told tragedy. It's really only in the film's last ten minutes or so that Haggis can't resist turning the screws on the impact. He was so close to a great movie. He really was. Hank's final moment is almost earned, but is ruined by unnecessary soaring music. It's as though Haggis doesn't trust his audience to feel according to his expectations. There is also a mishandling of the film's metaphorical title. It's from the biblical story of David and Goliath. It gets referenced not once but twice. The second time is too obvious to show the trust from Haggis that he and I had earned up to that point. There's really only one conclusion to come to from its inclusion. Let me come to it on my own.

Tommy Lee Jones earned his Oscar nomination as Hank. It seems like the typical Jones role because it is. His gruff red state man's man who won't back down or take guff from no one is his bread and butter. I think we just take the actor for granted. Casting him is a no-brainer, but that may be only because no one in their right mind would want anyone else playing this role. It needs Tommy Lee Jones.

The cast utilizes several former servicemen in supporting roles. They are not actors by trade, and it shows at times. Yet, there are startling key moments of real force during these performances. I can't dismiss them as non-actors (indeed, all of them have gone on to take more roles in Hollywood), when they can go to those places for the film.

Haggis's stock in Hollywood has slid since his surprise Oscar wins six years ago. He has talent. He just needs to trust his audience. We're smarter than he thinks.


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