I've dreaded writing the review for "In the Valley of Elah," writer/director Paul Haggis's follow-up to his Oscar-winning film "Crash."
Other than the dreadful films of Uwe Boll, there's likely not a director alive who seems to attract both the lovers and the haters like Paul Haggis.
Do you love Paul Haggis?
If so, "In the Valley of Elah" is likely to please you, perhaps even moreso than Haggis's "Gee whiz, can't we all get along?" histrionics in "Crash," the latest Oscar-winning film to leave the average American moviegoer scratching his/her head wondering "That's the best picture of the year?" For sure, "In the Valley of Elah" gives us Haggis's heavy-handed approach to universal life lessons, but there's an air of timeliness and believability in placing the film within the context of the Iraq war that makes it much easier to surrender to the storyline.
Do you hate Paul Haggis?
It's incredibly unlikely that "In the Valley of Elah" is going to change your mind. As a study of one man's grief, "In the Valley of Elah" has the potential to be one of 2007's finest films. Haggis, however, has never had as one of his creative gifts the ability to trust simplicity as a writer or a director. Thus, while the story of Hank Deerfield's (Tommy Lee Jones) search for answers in the disappearance and subsequent loss are deeply moving, too often Haggis has this seemingly insatiable need to wring every potential universal truth out of even the most basic storyline. Thus, "In the Valley of Elah" becomes part political drama, part psychological expose', part anti-war film, part legal/courtroom thriller and, even still, part story of one man's tragic loss.
As was often the case with "Crash," too many parts make for a convoluted whole that is less satisfying and less convincing when Haggis inevitably tries to tie it all together at film's end.
Much as in "Crash," as well, the final message of the film ends up being such an utterly simplistic conclusion that one can't help but wonder why Haggis felt such a need for so many detours along the way. It felt much like I do when Northwest Airlines chooses to route my Indianapolis to Dallas flight through Minnesota...even though I still arrive at my destination, the journey still doesn't make as much sense along the way.
As the bereaved father determined to find answers, Tommy Lee Jones offers one of the finest performances of his career, though I'm not quite as ready as the rest of the Academy to start shouting "Oscar!" at the top of my lungs. In fact, seeing Jones in "In the Valley of Elah" really more reminded me of how wonderful Jones was in the vastly underrated "Three Burials of Elquiades Estrada."
Nearly his equal cinematically, Charlize Theron shines as a stressed out, burned out detective who seems to spend as much time dealing with sexist peers as she does bad guys and bureaucrats.
Susan Sarandon, as Hank's wife, adds extra layers to a fairly one-note character, while Josh Brolin and James Franco spice up their scenes as bureaucrats that we've all gotten rather used to over the last, say, seven years or so.
For the film's closing scene alone, "In the Valley of Elah" should be immediately dismissed from any potential Oscar consideration...not that I believe there will be anyone, beyond Haggis devotee and widely respected film critic Roger Ebert, who truly believes the film merits such consideration. The scene, so pathetically over-the-top and manipulative, is a perfectly horrendous conclusion to a film that simply never decides what it ones to accomplish...other than, perhaps, win Haggis another Oscar.
While I'm not quite willing to consider Paul Haggis a Hollywood Goliath, I can't deny that justice will be served if some David comes along and kicks his cinematic ass come Oscar season.