Tuesday, July 14, 2009

‘In the Valley of Elah’ (2007): A review

Director: Paul Haggis
Starring: Tommy Lee Jones, Charlize Theron, Susan Sarandon

Movies that seek to make a statement on war and its consequences, invariably philosophize the means by which individuals reach their points of view and change, over the course of the narrative. ‘In the Valley of Elah’, examines in detail the lives of those who are painfully affected by happenings dictated by events separated as far in space and time as possible from their own domestic situations. It is important to state at the outset that the movie doesn’t seek to exploit a dramatic anti-war humanism in the same vein as the counter-culture inspired epics of the seventies, but is a humane and sober look at individuals guided by a blind patriotism that is painfully and gradually exposed for the hollowness that is at its core.
Tommy Lee Jones who plays the central character, does justice to the script in a sensitive portrayal of a father whose own experiences of war guide him to desperately search for answers in a world where the questions themselves have all changed. The ethics by which he lives, and by which he has brought up his son no longer, he finds, hold good. The codes of comradeship have changed just as irrevocably as the geography. All he can do at the end is to invert the same symbols (in this case, the U.S. flag) that he had used in a more familiar world, to rationalize his suffering.
One of the best scenes in the movie is at the end, when the comrades-in-arms of his son have been finally exposed as his killers and Jones’ character is granted the right to ask them what led to the murder. It is set in an anesthetized room, where the central culprit behind the multiple stabbing and burning of his son, explains to his comrade’s father what actually happened. The monologue by the soldier touches on the circumstances behind the killing, told without discernible emotion, but the soldier does turn self-conscious when he realizes that he is causing his audience pain. But he is so distanced from the horror that is of his own doing that it is impossible for him to understand its effect on other people - he laughs when telling of a time in Iraq when the victim was nicknamed, ‘Doc’ because he kept touching the open wounds of a captured prisoner causing him pain and asking if it hurts. He cannot understand the question at the end when the detective played by Charlize Theron asks him how he came to eat the food that he and his colleagues had consumed at a local eatery immediately after committing the murder – he says that he was really hungry and looks confused.
The American War in Iraq has been minutely deciphered – all sorts of inquiries by all sorts of people in all sorts of ways have been answered, in this age of instant media gratification. There have been documentaries made, books published and movies dedicated to; (1) the aggressors, (2) the common people of Iraq and (3) the local militias. But rarely do we see where it is all leading us – to a sense of progress in a future era of lasting civil society, to an age of desperate inadequacy, to the fulfillment of the hopes and dreams of our children?
‘In the Valley of Elah’ seeks to fill this void.

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