Long before he wrote and directed the Oscar-winning film “Crash,” Paul Haggis – a man who has been praised as a “master filmmaker” – co-created “Walker, Texas Ranger” for television.
Although “Walker” became immensely popular in its 9-year run, the show never exactly reached the emotional depth of Haggis’ later cinematic work. Chuck Norris deals in beat-downs, not drama. Most “Walker, Texas Ranger” episodes touted simple, Ronald Reagan-esque messages like “drugs are bad” and ignored the gray area known as reality.
There is no conservative moral in Haggis’ new movie, “In the Valley of Elah,” but there is still a message and, just as in “Walker, Texas Ranger,” the audience gets that message shoved down its throat. Of course, this message is that the war in Iraq is bad and it has screwed up our country and its people. The message may be pertinent now more than ever, but there’s no reason for Haggis to baby feed it to the audience – unless, of course, the audience is full of babies.
In the beginning of the film, Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones) learns that his son has returned from Iraq and disappeared from his military base in New Mexico. Hank, a Vietnam vet and retired military police officer, leaves his home and his wife (Susan Sarandon) to search for his son, Mike. After Mike is found dead, his body badly burnt and chopped into pieces, a local detective (Charlize Theron) assists Hank in the ensuing murder investigation.
Theron’s character could and should have been cut from the film entirely. She is overplayed, and her conflicts with her fellow detectives – a group of misogynist morons – detract from the rest of the story. However, the scenes Theron shares with Jones are palatable. She captures a mixture of pity and irritability for Deerfield that feels exceptionally honest and true.
As always, Tommy Lee Jones is amazing. He embodies the quiet, fathomless suffering of a career military man and patriot who has lost both of his sons as casualties of war. The filial despair of his character, as well as Sarandon’s, drives “In the Valley of Elah” and is a facet of the film more effective at condemning the war than any sweeping symbolic statement the script makes. Unfortunately, Haggis feels otherwise, and he spoils the end of the film with an unnecessarily heavy-handed symbolic gesture. Haggis would have been much better served to let the story speak for itself, and it’s a shame he chose to beat the audience over the head with it “Texas Ranger”-style. Some styles are just better left in the Reagan era.