Thursday, November 16, 2017

In the Valley of Elah (2007)

In the Valley of Elah is about a father’s search for his youngest son. On the surface it looks like the typical family drama propelled by a detective story but in truth there is a cleverly hidden antiwar subtext underneath. Too clever that I actually missed it.

The father is Sgt. Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones), Military Police retired. He got a call he didn’t expect since all the while he thought his son was still serving in Iraq. The Army called telling him Mike Deerfield (Jonathan Tucker) has gone AWOL while already in the US. 

As a father who’s worried and as a former soldier knowing what AWOL means to a career, Hank packed his bags at once to look for Mike.

Having seen nothing else but the detective story bodes well for its quality since I was so engrossed with the search for Michael. The subtext I managed to catch only at the very last minute, in fact the last shot. The bookend contrasted with its sibling shot at the beginning meaning something had changed.

So I watched a few choice scenes again, reconnect the dots. The presentation of ideas once subtle on the first run revealed a double edge. 

For example a spat between husband and wife can be what it is, something born out of the stress of the scene. Given a second look however it also showed that Hank is the problem. He and Joan (Susan Sarandon) his wife were never as close as I assumed to be.

I missed it because there’s no back-story. Nothing said of his beliefs. There’s no talk of politics in the war Mike served in. Clues were organically spread out with their double edge all over the story. If you’re looking for the missing soldier like Hank was then that’s all you can see.  

Another factor that made it difficult is the pacing, which I would describe as an acquired taste. There are many points in the movie when the camera would just hang on the character and there would be nothing but dead air. 

Hank has most of these scenes. At closer scrutiny the dead air was just the style, a chance for the character to give nonverbal nuances.

One of my favorite sequences to this effect was when Hank first heard of Mike’s death. There was no dialogue for over 2 minutes. Take note that a body was found in the previous sequence, unidentified but the implications are obvious.

The sequence starts with Hank cutting himself shaving and there’s blood. He doesn’t dwell on it but for the audience it’s a foreboding scene. It bleeds again after breakfast just to emphasize the point.

Hank of course doesn’t know what’s coming, he’s all business reviewing his notes. He means to search for Mike after cleaning himself up. Coming from the diner and running back to his motel room he is greeted by a soldier in dress uniform. 

This is his first visit from the Army since he went by his son’s base and the determination to find his lost son disappeared from his eyes. Hank makes the soldier wait. Of course he knew what a formally dressed soldier meant.

The scene hangs on for a few more seconds which seemed like an eternity with Hank fixated over tissue paper and the bleeding. He looked almost near faint when finally confronts the soldier who saluted him beautifully in silhouette.

It was the soldier who broke the silence by reporting what viewers would have already suspected.

As much as I enjoyed watching the subtle nuances in the scene that I just described I won’t repeat the movie if I want fun. Blade Runner 2049 had a similar aura about it and it didn’t work for me. Hell, Tom Hanks had a livelier dialogue stranded alone on an island in Cast Away.

Overall I liked the performances of Tommy Lee Jones, Charlize Theron, and Susan Sarandon. Tommy was enough to capture my attention as the stern retired soldier, grieving father; and all the non verbal nuances he performed by his lonesome. 

The story's design was about being in the moment. Hank is not a cinematic hero who will have his life and views played out, or come out in dialogue. He is a father has lost a son. He suffers alone. As a point of view story it works.

After all is said and done Hank does not set out to change the system but he did asked for help from anyone watching.

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