There’s a luxury civilian cinema goers have over most critics in formulating opinions on film, namely- the sweet cozy mechanics of memory, which can patch up loose ends in a film they’ve seen for days if not weeks afterwards, changing an initial unfavorable review to a big thumbs up. Most critics leave the theater and rush home to meet their deadlines – their knee-jerk responses and insecurities and mood of the moment are all in full effect; how could they not be? A good night’s sleep can change perspectives on a film enormously – for me such a film is IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH. It’s hard at first to know how to read this movie, as it uses dramatic cliches in strategic places that seem like mere filler (there’s a third act chase through the neighborhood that seems tacked on to keep viewers from falling asleep). But then director Haggis spins a corner and you’re back in the allegory. I walked out of the theater feeling totally despondent. Haggis and his DOP brilliantly capture the chilling emptiness of winter life in small town America – you can almost smell the exhaust fumes mixing with the chill air as Jones drives from one dead end joint to another while investigating the disappearance of his son – last seen AWOL near the barracks. We visit a fast food chicken joint, a strip club or two, a gun shop — hell, Jones even drives a pick-up truck. The little details accumulate in the mind until, hours later, the dead weight of middle American existence snaps your mental spine.
As with past Hollywood dramatic efforts (the presence of Sarandon as the wife lets you know this will be ultimately a dove’s eye view) we’re painting America as a big soldier barging into fragile countries like a clumsy Saint Bernard chasing a wascally wabbit. Tommy Lee Jones is magnificent in lots of craggy close-ups – his flesh hangs down around his mouth and then stops –hard — at this unsmiling mouth. He’s kept mellowness at bay for years, but nature’s clearly still had its way with him. He’s playing a breed of man that believes in the army because his psyche was formed in it as a youth, when wars had regimented proper European enemies instead of sneaky, bushwackin’ third worlders. This man is now forced to see how war is still destroying him even as he’s been living a civilian life for decades; it’s eating through his family to get to him, killing sons in ways that have nothing to do with heroism and moving towards him while the scythe of old age and death comes at him from behind in a pincer movement.
It’s chilling and metaphorical and adult and very, very sad, but so well-crafted that it takes a bit to process.. At first there’s just the details, and the weird feeling of anticlimax as plot lines are revealed which I won’t go into. It’s worth seeing if for no other reason than it tries and mostly succeeds in portraying the mundane tragedy of a life wasted under the cushioned but imperceptibly vampiric yoke of American ideals. More than A FEW GOOD MEN or COURAGE UNDER FIRE, the real war buddies to IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH are THE STRAIGHT STORY and ABOUT SCHMIDT. Much as our nanny state mere life society would like to convince you otherwise, making it to old age is hardly a military victory.