Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Valley Gall

Question of the day:

If Paul Haggis directs a film and it’s only half the train wreck that Crash was, should I be encouraged or disappointed?

I’m not going to get into too much Haggis bashing here as, by the time Crash won a stunning best picture victory over heavy favorite Brokeback Mountain last year, you’d have sworn the guy was a WWII conspirator who hated puppies and democracy instead of the director of a terrible and inexplicably awarded film. Haggis is part of a long tradition of cinema as diatribe, which some have confused as social consciousness. Regardless, no matter how flawed the final results invariably have been, I can’t deny that it springs from a source of good intention and a misguided belief that one film can change the world.

There’s also the issue that Haggis, an affable fellow by all outward appearances who even poked fun at himself in an "Entourage" episode, has written or co-written some of the best films to come out in the past few years, particularly his work with Clint Eastwood (it’s easy to forget how beloved Million Dollar Baby is even with the most hardened of cynics in the wake of Crash) and last year’s Bond revival Casino Royale. The problem is Haggis tendencies as a writer usually err on the side of pat characterizations and cute, Syd Field-ian storytelling devices that better filmmakers have the common sense to barrel right over whereas Haggis the director seems to wallow in them.

Haggis’ latest film In the Valley of Elah (Warner Independent, due in September) is not an awful film because it lacks the ambition and delusions of grandeur required to be an awful film. The film finds Haggis narrowing his scope from (in all capital letters) LIFE AND RACE IN L.A. to a rather intimate procedural that makes clumsy if predictably toothless swipes at the war in Iraq before an embarrassingly gooey (and poorly telegraphed) denouement. Essentially this is “A Few Bad Men” with Tommy Lee Jones channeling a Paul Schrader protagonist as he leaves the safety of his Middle America cocoon to investigate the murder and mutilation of his son near a southern military base, where he finds the U.S. military in full-on, cover its own ass mode.

It’s actually not a bad idea (albeit a fairly derivative one) and Tommy Lee’s given a plum part as a Vietnam vet and military lifer who's so ramrod straight that he remakes his hotel bed to comply with military standards and would rather grab a wet shirt out of the dryer than be seen in his undershirt by someone of the opposite sex. Jones has been playing variations on ornery and crotchety for thirty-years now but he gets some wiggle room here, finding humor in the understated, plainspoken demeanor of the character. More interesting is his losing battle with his own rage and slow realization that the son he’s pushed into a life in the military may not be the boy he sent off to war.

The problem with the film is it’s trying to be all things to all people with no one particular element executed especially well. Partnered with Jones’ character is Charlize Theron (in mousy earth-tones) whom the film dedicates an inordinate amount of time to as the female homicide detective who may or may not have slept her way into the department and must now prove her worth to her loutish male colleagues (and yes, maybe even to herself). If you put a gun to my head, I swear I couldn’t come up with a subplot in film history less interesting, yet the film keeps cutting away from its central mystery (hell, even leaving its rather vague thematic safety net of “war is hell”) to dwell on Charlize and her father-less son, Charlize the conflicted cop, Charlize the department doormat getting her grove back, etc…

Furthermore, once the film establishes the Jones’ kid is legitimately dead (the way the body is presented, I half expected him to show up in the third act) the guilty parties are readily apparent simply by virtue of what type of film this is, making the string of red herrings thrown in our path utterly transparent. I’m weary of condemning the film too heavily because issues with the film’s languid pacing will likely be addressed in the next few months (almost half the questions on the survey spoke to film length and scenes that may or may not have dragged), but it’s doubtful even with judicious editing they’ll be able to cut around the series of “A-ha!” revelations. What I gather is meant to be a stirring indictment of sociopath disassociation ends up coming across as warmed over Abu Ghraib bedtime stories, made all the more annoying by the fact that the film’s delivery system of each withering indictment of war is through one of the lamest devices imaginable (let’s just say when you’re fighting in a war it’s probably doubtful you’re going to be running the video function on your cell phone while providing a play-by-play narration during each skirmish and insertion).

But the larger issue here, albeit one that doesn’t reveal itself till the final act, is the self-congratulatory tone which elevated Crash from the level of good-intentioned but naïve to abhorrent and smug grandstanding. Jones’ character fought in Vietnam yet he seems oblivious to the idea of war crimes, torture, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, spending much of the film as the proverbial babe in the woods who’s shaken to the core but what he learns what the boys are doing over there while “spreading democracy.” Haggis is too canny a fence-sitter to lay blame on the soldiers themselves, essentially waving the white flag (as it were) at the whole concept of war, distilling his entire message down to “the whole situation’s fucked” which is exactly the sort of empty rhetoric that can generate lazy swells of applause without actually engaging with the overriding problem.

Is this really what a Hollywood liberal views as a wake-up call for Middle America, with Tommy Lee the last Red-Stater to finally get the message? In the Valley of Elah isn’t the blunt instrument swung in the name of shallow discourse that Crash was but the motion of the swing is every bit as clumsy.

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