IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH written and directed by Paul Haggis, with Tommy Lee Jones, Charlize Theron and Susan Sarandon. A Warner Independent release. 120 minutes. Opens Friday (September 21). Rating: NNNN
If there was a theme to TIFF 2007, it was the Iraq War. Brian De Palma's Redacted took us onto the frenzied front lines. Gavin Hood's Rendition showed us how and why suspected terrorists get seized and tortured without recourse. Even a film like Neil Jordan's The Brave One used the questionable war on terrorism as a metaphor for urban violence.
The quietest of them all has got to be Paul Haggis's In The Valley Of Elah, a mystery about a young Iraq War vet found brutally murdered near an American military base.
Writer/director Haggis doesn't think all these war-themed films are a coincidence.
"Back in 2003 and 04, our president was telling us not to think and just support the war effort," says the director, looking tired yet amiable after a late flight, hours of press and the film's official fest premiere later that day.
"The feeling was, if you questioned the war you were unpatriotic. As artists, we don't like to be told what to think. We weren't seeing the coverage of the war in the media, since the media were in lockstep with government. So we thought, 'We're going to tell the stories.' A lot of us are telling the stories now. And it's about time."
In The Valley Of Elah is structured like a good murder mystery. Career officer Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones) leaves his stoic wife (Susan Sarandon) at home and goes in search of their missing son. He meets up with an overworked single-mom police detective (Charlize Theron), and together and separately they try to piece together what happened on the boy's final night alive.
Haggis has screened the film for dozens of war veterans and their families. In fact, the day before he arrived at TIFF, he was in Washington, DC, screening the film yet again.
"A lot of people stood up after the film and talked, and it was very moving," says Haggis. "Then I walked outside into the lobby and a woman came up to me and said, 'Thank you for making this film. it was very hard for me to watch. My husband's an Iraq War vet. He committed suicide his first week back.'
"Then another woman thanked me for making the film and told me her son came back deeply troubled and hanged himself. Then another woman said that her husband had killed himself."
He pauses, visibly moved.
"Promoting this film has been harder than making it," he says. "During the filming, you use all these tragic stories," - the screenplay was inspired by a magazine article about a murdered vet - "filter them through your computer and through the camera lens. Once the film's out there, all you can do is listen to people's stories. And it can be overwhelming."
What's refreshing about Valley is how devoid of political argument it is. Unlike Haggis's 2004 feature debut, Crash, characters don't spew vitriol to tell us which side of the fence they're on.
"I wanted to show what was happening," says Haggis. "It's not that Democrats were right and Republicans were wrong, because that's not the case. I wanted to make a film that all Americans could see and could find their own truth in. If you make them face these hard questions, people will come up with the right answers.
"I was trying to do the same thing with Crash: ask really troubling questions without giving a big speech about race or intolerance. Here, maybe if we make people feel what these soldiers and families are going through, then maybe they can judge if the war is worth it or not."
Casting the role of Hank, the salt-of-the-earth father on a Sophoclean quest to uncover the truth, was crucial. He's onscreen for nearly every scene. Haggis's Million Dollar Baby director, Clint Eastwood, declined. But the two agreed that Jones was their man.
"Tommy's a man you can look at and say, 'That's an American.' We may not agree with his politics, but we know him to be someone who's moral, and if he finds something out that's troubling, he will do something about it."
Additional Interview Audio Clips
On whether being Canadian gives Haggis a better perspective on the war:
On the significance of the biblical story behind the title:
On following up on the success of Crash:
Tommy Lee Jones and Charlize Theron try to solve a war crime.
IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH (Paul Haggis) Rating: NNNN
Haggis's follow-up to his Oscar-winning Crash lands a quieter blow, but its effects are just as lasting.
Grizzled career officer Tommy Lee Jones embarks on a quest to find out what happened to his Iraq War veteran son, whose brutalized remains are discovered outside a New Mexico army base. With the help of Charlize Theron's put-upon detective, he tries to uncover the truth.
Haggis structures the film like a mystery but lends it the dread and inevitability of a Greek tragedy. The pace can be taxing, and the writing (especially the Biblical David-and-Goliath story referred to in the title) a bit precious. But Jones is superb, and Haggis's unsentimental look at a nation in turmoil hits home with cumulative force. GS