After reaching rock bottom with Crash, the only way left for Paul Haggis to go was up, and yet In the Valley of Elah feels like an act of slumming for a man who won two Oscars for putting on a histrionic impersonation of Robert Altman’s laidback humanist style. A namby-pamby tirade against the war in Iraq, In the Valley of Elah is a Canadian’s Sydney Pollack-inspired drag revue, with Tommy Lee Jones and Charlize Theron in the Paul Newman and Sally Field roles from Absence of Malice. Jones stars as a war veteran whose son appears to have gone AWOL after returning from Iraq, and Theron is the police detective who helps him put together the pieces of an investigation compromised by chauvinist and bureaucratic military forces. These two don’t sleep with each other, saving their energy instead for the systems that try to fuck each of them over, which ensures they come out on top, even if audiences don’t.
Haggis treats Hank (Jones) as a dense lump of red-state clay, bombarding him with tragedy until he’s moved the man to the right—which is to say, left—side of the political divide. Before learning that his son, Mike (Jonathan Tucker), is actually dead, hacked to pieces and dumped in a field that just falls within military jurisdiction, Hank gets a savvy Latino tech-head, Gabriel (Rick Gonzalez), to unscramble the images and videos Mike kept on a cellphone that was baked by the grueling Iraqi sun. Forget for a moment the unchecked Mike’s uncanny obsession with taking pictures and recording video in the middle of a war and note the transparent means by which Haggis uses the techie’s ostensibly time-consuming reparation of the cellphone’s image and video files to drag out Hank’s inevitable conversion to an anti-American ethos. Each new file arrives in Hank’s inbox depicting an increasingly graphic act of torture committed against Iraqis by American soldiers, so by the time he discovers the truth about his son’s death, it’s a miracle he doesn’t congratulate the perpetrators for having put Mike out of his moral misery.
A synthesis of A Few Good Men and Norma Rae, In the Valley of Elah plays out as a calculated attempt to appeal to jockboy political science majors and the Daughters of the American Revolution. If that sounds like a nightmare, it mostly is, but when Haggis casts his sights on Emily Sanders (Theron), the film is almost tolerable, even as it stirs up bad memories of Theron’s self-righteous Joan of Arc routine from North Country. At least one of Theron’s combative scenes with Jason Patrick comically suggests an act of foreplay, but the character’s willingness to play dirty in order to assert her equanimity in the workforce is surprisingly nasty, and the laxness with which the police force defers responsibility for the investigation into Mike’s death connects, almost subtly, to the way the military attempts to cover up its messes.
Like Crash, In the Valley of Elah is so obviously plotted it could have been scripted by the inflatable autopilot from Airplane! Haggis hawks fake seriousness, sees people as archetypes, distills real-life crisis to trite melodrama, inhumanely reduces racial strife to red herrings, and wastes the talents of actors like Susan Sarandon in bit parts that might have made more sense within the context of a Law and Order episode. But his success is not surprising: Because Haggis telegraphs all his punches, leaving absolutely nothing to the imagination, his films are easily appreciated as tidy screenwriting exercises, giving hope to aspiring filmmakers who chase after the same bogus Hollywood dream Altman put into alarming context with The Player.
Emily’s negligence in one scene is responsible for a woman’s death—recalling the journalistic insensitivity that factors into Melinda Dillon’s suicide in Absence of Malice—but she’s meant to be absolved because the misogyny of her peers understandably interferes with her better senses (she’s David to their Goliaths). Hank, a war hawk and unconscious racist, isn’t so easily forgiven, which is not to say he isn’t redeemable. The problem here isn’t so much the arrogance with which Haggis recognizes Hank as one of those pathetic holdovers who still support the George W. Bush administration, but the unexamined race-class nexus of the film’s locale. Haggis, a calculated Hollywood player, thinks he’s turning Hank’s presumptions about race against him except the character’s postulations aren’t credible, and the examples Haggis gives to illustrate the man’s racism only expose his own twisted notion of how races relate to one another.
While Hank is trying to solve Mike’s murder, he scours the boy’s war imagery for clues. In one video, which has Mike cruelly fucking with a wounded Iraqi, Hank catches a cholo scowling at the camera and, in a bizarre leap, fingers the young Mexican as his son’s murderer. More inexplicable is an earlier scene during which Hank notices an American flag hanging upside down in front of a school. In the real world, Hank would construe this as a deliberate act of protest and get filthy angry, but in the filmmaker’s artificial worldview, the flag is upside down because the school’s El Salvadorian janitor doesn’t know which way it’s supposed to hang, with Hank only too happy to patronizingly set the man straight. (Homeboy isn’t an illegal Mexican so we can only assume he’s either blind or failed his INS citizenship test.) The mind boggles trying to rationalize how this scenario could ever transpire outside a privileged screenwriter’s computer screen (or one of Fred Armisen’s “I’m just keeeeeeding” SNL sketches), but this wouldn’t be the first time Haggis has crapped on common sense (and decency) in the name of cheap bathos. Still, nothing—not even multiple viewings of Crash—can prepare one for the ludicrous bookend this racist sequence receives. It’s so predictable you’d think Haggis would have avoided visualizing it—but there it is, stinking up the screen and further confirming Haggis’s warped sense of reality.