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Post-Traumatic Mystery

Compared with Crash, Paul Haggis’s Iraq film is devastatingly restrained. Plus: Russell Crowe’s laughing eyes and Jodie Foster’s weird mistake.

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Paul Haggis’s In the Valley of Elah is vital in spite of its mustiness. As a narrative, it’s clunky. As a whodunit, it’s third-rate. As the drama of a closed-off man’s awakening, it’s predictable. But Haggis has got hold of a fiercely urgent subject: the moral devastation of American soldiers serving in (and coming home from) Iraq. At its heart are deeper mysteries—and a tragedy that reaches far beyond anything onscreen.

Tommy Lee Jones is in nearly every frame. He plays Hank Deerfield, a retired sergeant (and career Army man) who drives his pickup to a far-off base to investigate the disappearance of his only surviving son, Mike, just back from the Middle East. Mike’s buddies have no clue where he is—they say he must be holed up with a hot babe. The military authorities know nothing. The local police—including Charlize Theron as a harried detective—shrug him off: It’s an Army matter. Do any of these people want to know what’s happening? Maybe not. There is a house of cards to maintain.

The first scene of Haggis’s Crash made the point that racism is a very bad thing. So did the second. Ditto the third, fourth—and every one that followed. It’s a point with which I vigorously concur, but the film was so ham-handed that the people seemed like puppets. The good news is that Valley is relatively restrained—it’s every other scene that makes the same point, and only fleetingly. Over radios and TVs come snatches of news—an engagement in Fallujah, a presidential assurance of progress. Everything—and everyone—seems faraway, a little stuporous. The palette is washed out—khaki, military green—but shadowed. The vistas are empty. The tone is both vague and corrosive.

Jones is the perfect mascot for Haggis: a minimalist. The actor has a rep as a mean cuss, but like another mean cuss, Russell Crowe, in front of the camera he’s soft—his eyes are liquid and melancholy, his face is so pitted and riven with scowl lines he’s almost porous. He doesn’t need words—but when he has them, they’re sighed in his patented mixture of vinegar and regret. When Theron’s detective drives him to an off-limits crime scene and says, “It’s the least I could do,” he says, “I’d say that’s accurate”—offhand but shaming. Later, she tells him he doesn’t have to prove his love for his son, and his only response is to cock his head quizzically. His devastated wife (Susan Sarandon) has blurted that in their family, a son who didn’t fight wouldn’t have been a man. Hank knows a father who couldn’t face up to that wouldn’t be a man, either.

Hank, once an M.P., is a better detective than the cops or the Army’s investigator (Jason Patric), but there’s an especially wheezy contrivance: Mike’s PDA was damaged, and the techie who’s recovering the videos he took in Iraq is, wouldn’t you know, way busy and can only restore and e-mail them one at a time—each piece of the puzzle arriving at a strategic moment in the plot. But the fractured, hazy images on that small screen are chilling—from Mike tossing liberated Iraqi kids their first football (they run away with it) to things much worse. They echo what too few of us have seen in documentaries like The War Tapes (composed of videos taken by reservists) and in accounts from places like Haditha.

In the Valley of Elah is a movie about Iraq that could only have been made after Vietnam—after we’ve lived for three decades with its American casualties. Hank Deerfield was in Vietnam and still can’t believe what he sees. The movie’s only “Huh?” is that symbolic title, which refers to the place where David took on Goliath with a slingshot. Are the American soldiers or the Iraqis meant to be David? Or are the Davids the Americans at home—the ones who need to confront a ruthless and multi-tentacled administration? I’m stumped, but I forgive Haggis for overreaching. He must have thought he needed to invoke the Old Testament to say what he feels about a war that stinks to high heaven.

Fresh from their startling (if overpraised) and unbelievably brutal crime melodrama A History of Violence, David Cronenberg has reteamed with Viggo Mortensen for the startling and unbelievably brutal crime melodrama Eastern Promises. Mortensen again plays a man who is purposefully unreadable—the Russian driver for London-based Eastern European mobsters and a pal of the boss’s volatile son (Vincent Cassel). This time, his blonde co-star is Naomi Watts as a nurse-midwife who watches a pregnant 14-year-old Russian prostitute hemorrhage to death on the operating table and heads off with her diary in search of a translator. Wouldn’t you know she takes it to the absolute wrong person—the boss (Armin Mueller-Stahl) of the crime family that turns Eastern European girls into sex slaves? Will the ostensibly amoral Mortensen be her rescuer or assassin?


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