It's a fickle world, Hollywood, but on the occasion that it gets something right, it strikes gold. A week after Tommy Lee Jones turns in a strong performance in 'No Country for Old Men' - one of two films nominated for eight Oscars, the other being the Daniel Day Lewis-starring 'There Will Be Blood' - he gives an Oscar-nominated performance in 'In The Valley of Elah'.
Whilst the roles differ in some ways, they're similar in many. Both are middle-aged men who work or have worked as law enforcement agents; they are tired of the cruel side of life, accustomed to, but sick of, the bad and take the good for granted. The main thing they have in common of course is TLJ and his ability to portray every scene, every occurrence, every emotion with a squint of an eye or a turn of the head.
Jones previously won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in 'The Fugitive', and this is a fugitive tale with a difference. He plays a retired military policeman in the first film to be penned, produced and directed by Paul Haggis since his poignant drama 'Crash' won the 2006 Oscar for Best Picture. So no pressure then, Paul. Truth be told, it's not as if it was a case of first time lucky for Haggis, he's been picking up accolades for his scripts for years, including awards for 2004's 'Million Dollar Baby'.
Based on actual events, the film focuses on Jones' character who is appalled by how the army drags its feet when his son goes AWOL. He sets out to investigate his mysterious disappearance and subsequent death. He recruits the reluctant help of a police detective, cue Charlize Theron. The title, a biblical symbolic reference to the spot where David slew Goliath, refers to Jones' battle against the injustices of war.
The manner of the young man's death is proof enough that, as a result of the dehumanising effect of the Iraq War, his life balance had tipped over to the dark side. The pain of this reality, the arrival of every new shred of evidence and every twist in this disturbing tale is etched all over Jones' face.
As serious as the films content is, like every good writer and director Haggis knows that the key to its success is to tease his audience. The result is a socially aware thriller that in places rivals the suspense of 'Missing' or the original 'Manchurian Candidate'.
However, in his pursuit to tie up all the loose ends in the film, Haggis gives unnecessary time and energy to the numerous subplots and characters, taking away from the film's natural pace. The result being, the film is longer than it needs to be.
Just as he did with 'Crash', Haggis has perfectly cast each and every character in '...Elah' knowing the effect on the film and its audience. He was off to a great start with three Oscar winners in the leading roles. It's a small-but- poignant role for Susan Sarandon as Jones' character's wife. She's lost both her sons in wars she doesn't believe in and she's lost belief in her husband because he didn't share that mistrust…until now. Theron gives a convincing performance as the fatigued cop, as tired of her misogynistic colleagues as she is from the demands of her working single mum routine.
The ensemble supporting cast are excellent; from Josh Brolin to a resurrected Jason Patric to James Franco (looking forward to seeing his next film, 'Pineapple Express', an action comedy with Seth Rogen).
In any other film, all the final shot would be missing is macaroni but here it drives home the film's message about the Iraq war. A distress signal that we've heard for years, but thanks to Jones' superb performance when you're 'In the Valley of Elah' you listen.