Bitter pill with power to heal
AUDIENCES that stay to watch the end credits of the new film by writer- director Paul Haggis, will discover, after the main cast list, a dedication: To the Children. It is accompanied by a photograph of a dead child lying on a road, presumably the Iraqi boy whose fate is one of the key elements of the film. It’s a real photograph, and the film is inspired by actual events, but the message it contains is not one most Americans wanted to hear, and the film, like the equally probing Rendition , did not perform well in the US when it opened there late last year.
Perhaps Australians will be more open to Haggis’s message, which is, essentially, that the war in Iraq has had a destructive influence on US society. The film’s final image, which I won’t reveal, is one of the most devastating conclusions in American cinema ( you have go back to Chinatown for an ending as bleak) and Haggis has stuck his neck out in delivering such an uncompromising message.
Though the argument is unmistakable, much of the film is understated. On one level, it’s a whodunit. Tommy Lee Jones, looking more cadaverous and world- weary than ever, plays Hank Deerfield, a long- serving professional soldier and Vietnam vet, now retired, whose two sons followed him into the military.
The older son died in an accident, but the younger, Mike, has served in Bosnia and, most recently, in Iraq. His unit has just returned to base in Fort Rudd, New Mexico, but Mike has gone AWOL, and with hardly a word to his quietly suffering wife ( Susan Sarandon in an unusually thankless role), Hank sets off from his home in Tennessee to see what’s happened.
Some days later, the soldier’s burnt and dismembered corpse is found on wasteland outside the jurisdiction of the military. With the help of an embattled police detective, Emily Sanders ( Charlize Theron), a single mother coping with the ingrained prejudice and thinly disguised hostility of her male colleagues, Hank sets about investigating, unwilling to believe that his son’s comrades could have had anything to do with his murder. Clues to the crime are found in the images recorded on Mike’s mobile phone, images that are barely decipherable but which, on repetition ( the influences here are certainly from film classics such as Blow- up and The Conversation ), begin to make a ghastly kind of sense.
Haggis is not attacking the men who are fighting under unbelievably difficult and dangerous conditions, but he is proposing that these young Americans have been dehumanised to the point that even the most decent among them commit atrocities which, on reflection, will haunt and destroy them and, by extension, their families, for years to come. The tone is pretty grim, but this is a pretty grim subject, and it’s to Haggis’s credit that he had the courage to make this film ( encouraged, he has said, by the support of Clint Eastwood, who nevertheless declined to play the leading role).
Adding to the mood is the washed- out cinematography by Roger Deakins ( who also photographed No Country for Old Men and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford ) with its cold images of military enclaves, motels, police stations, bars, gun shops, diners and dreary desert townships. In keeping with these austere surroundings are the characters Hank and Emily encounter in their investigations, most of them obstructive, including Josh Brolin as Emily’s devious boss, and Jason Patric and James Franco as low- level military types intent on obfuscation rather than clarification.
The title refers to the valley where David slew Goliath and the symbolism of that story, which Hank tells Emily’s small son, resonates throughout this intense, disturbing, important film.
* * * AS the title of 75- year- old Robert Benton’s new film Feast of Love indicates, there’s no shortage of romance in this movie. Much of the action happens around a cafe in Portland, Oregon, run by the amiable Bradley ( Greg Kinnear) who is very much in love with his wife, Kathryn ( Selma Blair), but is blissfully unaware that she’s falling in love with another woman ( Stana Katic).
On the rebound, Bradley falls heavily under the spell of a beautiful real estate agent, Diana ( Radha Mitchell) unaware that she’s carrying on a clandestine relationship with David ( Billy Burke), a married man. Poor Bradley, he just doesn’t have much luck. On the other hand, happiness seems assured for teenagers Chloe ( Alexa Davalos) and Oscar ( Toby Hemingway), who meet at the cafe and who quickly discover that they’re soul mates, despite the fierce disapproval of Oscar’s awful father ( Fred Ward).
These romantic comings and goings are observed through the benevolent eyes of Harry ( Morgan Freeman), a university professor who has been happily married for years to Esther ( Jane Alexander), though they’ve had setbacks and tragedy in the past.
There’s nothing new about any of this, but the cast is excellent, the screenplay, by Allison Burnett ( Autumn in New York ) from a novel by Charles Baxter, is refreshingly adult and the director brings an unexpected sensuality to the frankly- filmed love scenes.
Torn asunder: Susan Sarandon and Tommy Lee Jones in a scene from In the Valley of Elah