Sunday, December 14, 2008

In the Valley of Elah: rent this DVD!

We are still talking about how bittersweet and haggard Tommy Lee Jones was in the Coen Brother's remarkable adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's novel "No Country for Old Men", understandable enough, but most of us have all but forgotten another amazing film he made that same year, "In the Valley of Elah", an Iraq War-themed murder mystery written and directed by Paul Haggis.I'll have to put in my two cents for "In the Valley of Elah" as one of the best films to come out in 2007. I saw it when it opened in a nearly empty theater, and I could only imagine in retrospect that we hadn't collectively arrived at the moment when we wanted to see Jones shine especially well in a role. That moment arrived a couple of months later with the offering from the Coens So far as demonstrating acting chops, it was a banner year for Jones, particularly in demonstrating his skill at underplaying a character, slowing down his pace, giving his lines a nuanced, cautious pace; this is remarkable for an actor whom was bordering on becoming a Pacino-esque self parody of inappropriate over-stylization of a performance.

"In the Valley of Elah" has a enticingly thick layering of lies, conspiracies and misdirections revolving around a major political blunder, the Iraq War, and in classic detective form the former military police inspector Jones portrays has to confront and puncture each and every cover story other characters are handing him as he conducts his unofficial murder investigation. The screenplay and direction of Paul Haggis is remarkable for the lack of self righteous speeches about the inhumanity of it all--there are no Paddy Chayefsky tirades to be heard anywhere. Rather , there is a laconic tone, a dragging weight to the dialogue as resignation to odious greater events seem to depress the very light.

There is one especially choice frame, when we see Jones from the street as he uses the machines at an all night Kinko's; through the window the interior light brightly burn through the dark street for a few feet, and then grows faint and ragged at the end of it's glowing radiance, suggesting both the urban isolation Ed Hopper could get on a canvas and that this character's world, once young and idealistic,is getting dimmer as he gets closer to a truth of a tragic consequence to a gross demonstration of bad faith. It's a generation clash of the subtlest measures and we can see Jones' notions of integrity, patriotism and honor shrink in the cold vapors of a another generation coached more in buck-passing than duty.

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