In the Valley of Elah
What makes this latest Paul Haggis written/directed drama such a letdown is that for 95 percent of its running time it's not only a good movie, but it teeters on great. Retired military investigator turned average Tennessee guy Hank (Tommy Lee Jones at his taciturnly poker-faced best) receives a call from his son's military base saying that he's gone AWOL since his unit returned from Iraq. Knowing the behavior unusual for Mike (Jonathan Tucker), Hank heads to the base in New Mexico to find out what happened, hitting a brick wall of self-doubt when he finds out that Mike was murdered, dismembered, and set afire. Military and local investigators (Charlize Theron) grapple with jurisdiction, and every uncovered clue points down a dead end that makes Hank wonder if he really knew his son--and what, just what, happened to him and his squad over in Iraq. The meanderingly gripping storytelling is anchored by a typically heavyweight Jones performance and Haggis finally finding something akin to subjective shot compositions that allow him to visually invest an emotional gravity and depth that he'd typically resort to putting in a leaden piece of dialogue. Just what and who happened to Mike is the movie's great stomach punch--and then in the final minutes Haggis pulls out the didactic sledgehammer and starts swinging, and this beautifully understated, effectively subtle piece of thoughtful filmmaking becomes insulting, lowest-common-denominator blathering that assumes its audience isn't getting the point and resorts to being just as spinelessly manipulative as a conservative talk radio and Steven Spielberg.