After Crash launched its stunning sneak attack on the 2006 Best Picture Oscar, director Paul Haggis became the target of a serious backlash, with critics and moviegoers alike decrying his creation's lack of subtlety, one-note characterizations, and sub-After School Special message. Blown office pools aside, what was perhaps most frustrating about the film's success was the feeling that there was a smaller, worthier movie buried somewhere within all of the bombast. Based on his back catalog (including the scripts for Million Dollar Baby, Flags of Our Fathers, and the superb short-lived TV series EZ Streets), Haggis comes off as a filmmaker with a genuine knack with actors, a taste for big, significant themes, and a near-to-total inability to figure out when to say when.
Unfortunately, Haggis' shelf full of awards hasn't exactly inspired him to curb his more excessive tendencies. In the Valley of Elah, the writer/director's Oscar-bait follow-up to Crash, boasts an honorable, provocative premise and a towering no-bullshit performance by Tommy Lee Jones. It just doesn't know when to quit. Based on a true incident, Haggis' script follows a retired military policeman (Jones) spurred into action when his son is reported AWOL soon after his return from Iraq. Aided by a sympathetic detective (Charlize Theron) he soon uncovers evidence that calls into question his impressions of his son, and his beloved country.
The premise packs an undeniably timely gut punch, but the film's plodding, overstated style comes off as both needlessly busy—the central mystery feels drawn out, with new clues introduced at strategic intervals—and dumbed-down preachy. But then there's Jones, whose resolutely non-loveable performance as a man increasingly adrift does what it can to transform the rampant sentimentality into honest sentiment. He can't single-handedly save this frustrating film from its overly earnest impulses, but when he's on screen, at least the hokum burns cleaner.