Monday, September 10, 2007

In the Valley of Elah - my TIFF review

So I went to my first film festival movie today at the Toronto International Film Festival. I saw Paul Haggis's new piece In the Valley of Elah. The general plot focuses on the father of a soldier in Iraq (played by Tommy Lee), and follows his quest to find his son after the soldier returns from Iraq but goes awol. Before launching into it, I should disclaim the fact that I really like Crash (not loved, just liked).

Well, this was just as heavy and preachy as Crash, without the cliches, and with Tommy Lee Jones and Charlize Theron channeling their raw, concentrated emotions into you. It was brilliantly acted; really, really, well acted. My friend AB is sure TLJ is going to get the oscar nod, and I have to say, i could see this happening. Susan Sarandon briefly appeared a few times as the mom, and cried a whole lot. I deride her because I find most of her performances one smidgen over the top, but she did well here, with one particularly poignant moment when she sees her son's remains "is that it?..." she asks. Oscar nomination for TLJ, maybe directing nomination for Haggis, but no best picture I would say, the script was too loose for me. A few times I screwed up my face and went: huh? A few times the symbolism or dialogue felt too preachy, and at other times the clever humor felt inappropriate.

Anyway, the talk about this movie beforehand billed it as "one of the first films to explore the effects of war on the families of soldiers." Or something like that. Well first of all I disagree with the premise, in that it seems to me a lot of war films are about the effects of war on the families of soldiers. Second of all, the movie wasn't at all about the 'family effect' anyway, which is a good thing because that sounded kind of boring (although it was an enduring subtheme). To me the movie was about how this war morally corrupts those involved. Without a clear moral grounding, a real us vs. them, good vs. bad struggle, war quickly devolves into an all-consuming leviathan. Vietnam was like that. World War I was like that.


The climax of the movie, to me, was an amazing scene where a soldier confesses to killing Tommy Lee's son, not without remorse, but with a chilling detachment from the morality of the event. It was like he realized what he did was wrong, but wrong in the way that shoplifting a candy bar is wrong, or shooting a squirrel with a BB gun. His conception of the magnitude and gravity of the act of killing another human being had been totally skewed. The overwhelming power of the scene derives from the juxtaposition between the horrified shock of Charlize and Tommy Lee, and the almost cheerful narrative of the soldier. Awesome stuff. I would say a must see.

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