by LUKE BAUMGARTEN & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & here are a lot of films -- especially difficult, complex, idealistic films -- that redeem themselves in the final 10 minutes. Taking a tangle of ideas and characterizations and imagery and condensing those finally around a locus of gut-wrenching emotion, they find pinpricks of humanity amid chaos. Paul Haggis' Crash was one of these films, and it won three Oscars.
There are even more films that crumble and ultimately fail in that final stretch, collapsing under the weight of their haphazard structure, their absurdities, their clich & eacute;s. Taking it one tragedy or symbolic gesture too far, they seek emotional grandiosity for its own sake. The Paul Haggis-penned Million Dollar Baby -- overdosing on humanist tragedy -- is one of these films. It won four Oscars.
Haggis' latest, In the Valley of Elah, is the first film I've seen do both.
It begins, as so many dramatic treatises do, with a character of strong moral conviction. Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones) is a retired military policeman who never quite got the army out of him. He still makes his bed with military precision. He shines his shoes nightly. He still wakes at the crack of dawn. On his way out of town to search for his AWOL youngest son, Deerfield stops to show an El Salvadoran janitor the proper way to fly a flag (uh, not upside down) giving him an American civics lesson. Flying a flag upside down, Hank tells the man, is a sign of insurmountable distress. And Hank doesn't think his country is in distress.
Jones plays Hank with the kind of stubbornness and dignity he last displayed in The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. The character, though, is drawn so boldly and crassly that we see past Jones' attempt at nuance, knowing almost immediately where In the Valley of Elah is headed. He's tested, almost immediately, by jurisdictional quagmires and the unwillingness of police officers -- military or otherwise -- to let him poke around an open investigation. He's resourceful, though, and he befriends Detective Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron). An idealist, she works with him to solve the boy -- David's -- disappearance. What Hank uncovers is hard to take. The life his son lived in Iraq (drugs, probable murder), the damage it did (more drugs, violent outbursts) and what ultimately happened to David are all a prelude to Hank's realization of his own guilt.
That's when, with about 10 minutes left, the film really sings. Sitting in his truck, about to leave for home, Hank is gripped by the full weight of his son's legacy, and how Hank's cold, military demeanor and belief in honor and service above all else had pushed this child to war and kept him there. By this point, Jones has seemed on the verge of tears a couple times, but never quite crested the bank. Here he sucks it up as well, never allowing himself the weakness of grief, but his eyes betray heartbreak and even surrender. That's when he packs up and heads home.
Then, just when it looks like Haggis (with a huge assist from Jones) has managed another improbably Crash-esque success, he sends Hank back to that original flagpole with the same El Salvadoran dude, to participate in what Haggis clearly feels is the ultimate act of patriotism. It's sickening and kinda scary.
The truck scene has a startling beauty, and the flag scene could easily be interpreted as a timely act of artistic dissent by Americans (both Hollywood liberals and Ron Paul conservatives) tired of living with a meaningless war. Given Haggis' record as an award-magnet and the film's timeliness, who knows how many Oscars In the Valley of Elah could win.