"In the Valley of Elah (R) Three stars
The Hunting Party (R) Three and a half stars
In the Valley of Elah and The Hunting Party are both related to war, though the tones are radically different. Both films have strong performances by respected actors. Both manage to pay off despite some major problem areas.
Paul Haggis, the man behind 2005’s Crash, wrote and directed In the Valley of Elah and hoo boy, does he owe Tommy Lee Jones and Charlize Theron a big thank you. As most people who saw Crash can attest, subtlety is not Haggis’ strong suit. Elah deals with the mystery surrounding the death of a soldier freshly returned from the Iraq war. Haggis uses the story to make a statement about war itself. He gets his point across within the flow of the murder investigation plotline, but that isn’t enough for him, so he wedges in some ridiculously over-the-top moments to drill home the message JUST IN CASE YOU MISSED IT.
Imagine watching Titanic at a friend’s home theater and, every few minutes, having his 8-year-old kid run up from behind, thump you on the noggin with one of those long cardboard tubes used for holiday wrapping paper and say, “You know, the two young lovers represent the hopes and dreams of everyone on the boat.” Haggis does the thumping here, with the most egregious example coming at the very end of the film.
The good news is that Tommy Lee Jones, as the father of the dead soldier who haunts the military base looking for answers, and Charlize Theron, as a local cop reluctantly helping him, are so strong that they triumph over Haggis’ thematic ham-handedness as well as the clichés in the script. And Susan Sarandon contributes a brief, quietly effective performance as Jones’ mournful wife. In the Valley of Elah is gripping enough that I was willing to put up with Haggis and his cardboard tube antics.
I suspect The Hunting Party will polarize audiences more than Elah. Loosely based on an Esquire magazine article by Scott Anderson, writer/director Richard Shepard’s film deals with a fallen-from-grace former network news reporter (Richard Gere), his pal and ex-cameraman (Terrence Howard) and a network executive’s son (Jesse Eisenberg). In Bosnia, the trio sets out to snag an interview with a Serbian war criminal (Ljubomir Kerekes) and they are mistaken for C.I.A. assassins.
The film shifts wildly in tone, from serious to comic to surreal to tragic and back again, which has bothered a lot of reviewers. Lou Lumenick of the New York Post says, “The film comes off more like a drunken recollection by a war correspondent than something that might actually have happened.” Lumenick is right, but what he criticizes is what makes the film so engaging. It plays like a ripping good yarn told by a foreign correspondent drinking with some colleagues in an exotic bar in the wee hours of the night.
At various times, The Hunting Party is respectful, irreverent, funny, sad and harrowing. Terrence Howard contributes a typically assured performance and Richard Gere is especially impressive. I liked the movie and thank Mr. Lumenick for helping me get in the right frame of mind to enjoy the show.