IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH would just be a lame police procedural or boring murder mystery if it weren't for some amazing performances from Tommy Lee Jones, Susan Sarandon, Charlize Theron and new actor Wes Chatham. All of them elevate an otherwise weak story and are awesome to watch but they ultimately can't save this script.
What happens is Jones and Sarandon play the parents of an Iraqi soldier who returns from the war zone and who then goes missing. Jones' character Hank Deerfield teams up with Theron's Emily Sanders to try to find his son, only to learn his son was murdered. Like Stabler and Benson from Law & Order, Deerfield and Sanders are on the case.
There's a fairly obvious trail of breadcrumbs that Deerfield and Sanders follow after the dead body is found. There's some misdirection, red herring twists and surprises as in the Dick Wolf TV series, but along the way, you're waiting for a really big shock at the end like you get with Law & Order and you really don't get it. You feel like the movie is building toward something and that what happened will be truly a smack, but ultimately it's not. It's disturbing and shocking but solely for those reasons.
There are two revelations here. One is who murdered the American soldier and the other is what happened to that soldier when he was still in Iraq. When those two questions are finally answered, I was legitimately disappointed. Both answers basically comment on the fact that the Iraq war is having or is wreaking horrible damage on the psychological state of soldiers coming home. This is nothing new.
Filmmakers like Oliver Stone, going all the way back to the Vietnam and even the second World War, have made the point of how war affects men who come home and who then take their frustrations out on civilians, family members or even each other in often very violent ways.
This movie is prefaced with the now cliché "inspired by true events" and I'm sure this film is. On the new Star Jones show on Court TV, she had an American soldier on named Jonathan Aponte, just convicted of perjury, who said he came back from Iraq with serious mental problems. Aponte hired a hit man to shoot him, but what is Haggis truly saying here?
Is Haggis saying that all soldiers coming back from Iraq become sociopaths and brutal murderers, as two characters in this movie do? There are a whole lot of issues about the effect of the Iraq war on our soldiers including the physical damage and lack of proper care, but Haggis' indictment of the war in this way seems too overblown.
Despite the fact that Wes Chatham gives a chilling performance as a young soldier back from the war whose scene toward the end had everybody's jaw dropped in the audience as we could not believe the horror he spoke in such a cold, heartless, matter-of-fact way, as if his time in Iraq had so hardened him as to make what he was saying, his description of murder, so minor by comparison.
You do see the opposite reaction in powerful display. Susan Sarandon, who delivers yet another Oscar-worthy piece of work, had me in tears in every scene she had, which weren't many, but one scene where she has to identify her baby son's body was amazing as her eyes were wide open and Haggis allowed her and Jones simply to walk away from the camera down a corridor and each step you feel the heartache in her.
Jones gives another hard exterior, emotional interior, quiet, weathered-face performance. He's a former military man whose now retired but echoes of his military-ness do reveal themselves. He's also a former detective, which is revealed most noticeably. He's also a bit of a wisecrack. He's certainly patriotic, but I've seen gradations of this same character before from Jones, but I liked it.
Theron was good as well, but again, her character suffers from a weak story and a script that sees more clichés thrown her way than anything really substantial. She plays a single mom who has to deal with sexism from her male co-workers in such an obviously chauvinistic way as to be almost stupid and out of place in this film.
In short, I straight up didn't like this movie. The message the film leaves you with is so gross as to be off-putting or confusing, and it now ranks to me as the second worse film Paul Haggis has penned, the first being Flags of Our Fathers.
Don't get me wrong. I like Paul Haggis. His Oscar wins for 2005's Crash and 2004's Million Dollar Baby were not without merit. Both those movies were intensely personal films that touched upon grander social issues. This new effort attempts to be the same, but what it ends up being is an episode of Law and Order, more like Law and Order: Iraq Victims Unit.
Two Stars out of Five.
Rated R for violent, disturbing content and language.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 1 min.
Showing at 7PM on Sunday, January 27 and Wednesday, February 3.,
MOVIE REVIEW - INTO THE WILD
In high school, I took a film class where my teacher told me that travelogue movies were boring. I didn't agree with him at the time because he was talking about a movie that I had made. I didn't think that I would ever agree with my teacher, Mr. Seger, until I saw this new movie. Yes, this new movie is basically a travelogue, and, yes, this new movie is boring. God, is it boring! It dragged and dragged until about half way through I was wishing for this guy to just hurry up and die already.
INTO THE WILD is the biographical account of real life survivalist Christopher McCandless who ended up not surviving and who is a possible Darwin Award winner who wanted to be like Jack London or Henry David Thoreau as he abandoned society to live alone in the wilderness of Alaska. Stupidly, however, he mistook poisonous fruits for good food and accidentally killed himself by eating them.
The film is based on a book by author Jon Krakauer who criticizes McCandless for his stupid decisions, and not just for eating poison berries. However, writer-director Sean Penn instead glamorizes and glorifies McCandless' stupidity, making McCandless out to be some kind of enlightened hero, when in reality, he was nothing but a privileged, well read, but slightly naive and a little snotty idiot.
Emile Hirsch plays young Chris McCandless who after graduating from Emory University suddenly disappears for two years until his dead body is found starved to death in Alaska. Clearly this guy is an adventure-seeker, but cutting himself off from his family, and really all of mankind, without any word along the way of where he was going was stupid.
And the only explanation is that his parents argued when he was younger. His father apparently had an affair and his mother knew about it and tolerated, only having the occasional blow up, but in McCandless' mind they were living a lie. Therefore, when he hits the road, what does McCandless do? He lies about his name, and yet he claims he wants to live a truthful life. Stupid!
He cuts up his ID cards, literally burns his cash and abandons his car on the side of the road. Stupid! He claims to want to be one with nature yet he decides to live in an abandoned bus because it has a bed and a stove. Yeah, some naturalist you are! That made no sense.
In the desert of California, he claims to be wiser than an old man he meets who's actually suffered a real loss and who's actually had a full life. McCandless thinks because he's read Tolstoy he knows more than a man old enough to be his grandfather. I don't think so. !
Then at the end, after swearing that there's more to life and happiness than human relationships, he scribbles in his little book that life is better when you have someone to share it with, someone other than the moose head you've just decapitated, which makes his whole trip slightly fun if ultimately pointless.
And, I must emphasize the only slightly fun. The majority of this film had me yawning. There are maybe one or two scenes that are genuinely exciting like the kayaking down the river rapids scene but it's sacrificed to being maybe 30 seconds to give time for some ignorant people on the banks of the Colorado that McCandless meets who add nothing to the story. A bulk of the reels is McCandless alone scribbling notes and making notches in his belt. That was boring!
It disappointed me that this was Sean Penn's directorial debut. The man who's now known for powerful dramatic roles delivers from behind the camera a lame travelogue that might be interesting to lovers of National Geographic or the Travel Channel, but not to me.
Actor Emile Hirsch seemed at times to be doing a Sean Penn impression in a few scenes, a bad Sean Penn impression, especially in the initial scene with his parents, which had me tilting my head.
Jena Malone who co-starred with Hirsch five years ago in The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys, a far better film than this, is highly under-utilized as simply a narrator.
This movie should have been less about McCandless' stupid physical journey and more about the fallout of his family or the impressions of his vis-a-vis the people he encountered as a kind of elegiac documentary, not this lame narrative.
One Star out of Five.
Rated R for language and some nudity.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 20 mins.
Showing at 7 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 13 and Wednesday, Feb. 17.