I was not a fan of Paul Haggis’ Oscar-winning directorial debut Crash, but his second feature, In the Valley of Elah, is a more honest, more heartfelt picture and was well received here in Venice. As much a murder-mystery/police procedural as an Iraq-themed picture, it stars Tommy Lee Jones as Hank Deerfield, a patriotic ex-military detective looking into the disappearance of his son, Mike, who’s just returned Stateside from a tour of duty in Iraq but has since gone AWOL. Turning up at Mike’s base in Tennessee, Hank’s keen investigative skills soon come into play when Mike’s brutally stabbed, mutilated and partially burned body is found, and, with the help of Charlize Theron’s local detective, a single mother battling the chauvinism of her male colleagues, he begins his own exploration into Mike’s death, slowly assembling the puzzle pieces despite the military’s indifference. With the title referring to the setting for David’s fight with Goliath, and inspired by real life incidents, the film tackles head on the big issue of what happens to young men when they’re sent to war, and what happens when they return, psychologically damaged. Despite the US setting, Iraq is a constant presence, although we only ever really see it via grainy videophone footage shot by Mike. It’s a thought-provoking film with a powerful message and some very fine performances—not just from the always dependable Jones and Theron, but newcomer Jake McLaughlin, himself an Iraq veteran, who plays one of Mike’s platoon buddies. (Susan Sarandon, however, is given little to do as Hank’s wife but grieve in a handful of scenes.) There is, however, one fatal flaw in the logic of the movie, revolving around the murder itself, that’s nagged at me since I’ve seen it. (Haggis claims he followed the facts and that’s what happened.) Nevertheless, this is a solid, emotive and moving film, with Haggis using the tropes of the thriller to smuggle across political points with laudable subtly and skill.
An intelligent, well-crafted piece of adult entertainment from Bourne screenwriter Tony Gilroy, making his directorial debut, Michael Clayton features another serious, sober turn from George Clooney as the eponymous fixer for a New York law firm called in to clean up when one of their top lawyers, litigator Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson) goes doolalee — he’s a manic-depressive who stops taking his medicine — six years into defending an agrochemical firm in a class-action lawsuit. Clayton, too, is on an increasingly downward spiral, facing his own moral, spiritual and financial crises. As debts from his wayward brother’s failed restaurant pull at his monetary resources, the years of cleaning up others peoples’ messes are finally taking a toll. Divorced, emotionally threadbare, he may be his firm’s go-to guy, their “miracle worker”, but he’s in dire need of someone to fix him. Deliberately paced, with a strong supporting cast (Wilkinson, Sydney Pollack, Tilda Swinton) and a smart script that harks back to corporate thrillers of the 1970s — Clooney compared it to Three Days of the Condor — this, despite a few minor plot contrivances, expertly captures the shadowy side of corporate America.