I do not understand why certain critics like certain movies. David Denby plotzed about this film as if it was a miracle to behold. This being a Paul Haggis film (Crash: need I say more?) I had serious doubts. But I love me my Tommy Lee Jones, so I went to see what the fuss was all about. In short, In The Valley of Elah has the distinctive signature of a Paul Haggis movie. It is contrived, manipulative and utterly fake, but since this is all done with a mournful tone and a dour palette, the cheesiness evades even the most perspicacious film critics.
A film that wastes the talents of Susan Sarandon in such a sloppy, cavalier way is already asking for trouble. But then there are the paint by numbers plot twists that always remind me perhaps I need to read that Story screenwriting manual again, since people who follow its advice -- and I bet Paul Haggis is one of them -- tend to win Oscars and good reviews for their terrible movies.
These are the two things that really rubbed me the wrong way:
1. I am expected to believe that the missing soldier's cellphone contains an inordinate amount of footage, almost the length of Ben Hur. Let's for a moment give this the benefit of the doubt. What is unconscionable is that this flimsy plot device is artificially dragged out to elicit maximum manipulation of the audience.
2. You know the screenwriter has no respect for the likes of you when in the middle of the movie, or whenever one of those fabled plot points need to punch in the timecard, policewoman Charlize Theron, looking way too glamorous for Buttfuck, Texas, has a life changing moment because she didn't pay attention to the poor white trash that filed a complaint against her husband for animal torture. I am not the police, but if I were, I would know that if a man is trying to drown a dog in a bathtub, his wife and/or kids may be next. But this idiotic contrivance sets up her epiphany, to which I say with no little exasperation, please give me a breeeeeaaaaaak.
If this movie has a saving grace, it is that it wants to tell the story of the aftermath for our returning soldiers (of which we ain't seen nothing yet and I assure you it will be ugly). It is a noble story to tell, but not by someone so hamhanded, who has such little faith in the audience.