Bit­ter pill with power to heal

David Stratton

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

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

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