Here's an excerpt from my review in the 9/24/07 issue of The American Conservative:
I would guess that Haggis' strength is writing from personal feelings. "Crash" was inspired by his being car-jacked in 1991 by two black criminals. And "Elah" probably had a lot to do with his having four kids. I suspect "Elah" will have a big impact on people with teenage sons, and tend to bore most everybody else.
" is a modest-budget drama laden with Hollywood luminaries. Oscar-magnet screenwriter Paul Haggis ("Crash" and "Million Dollar Baby") directs fellow Academy Award winners Tommy Lee Jones ("The Fugitive"), Charlize Theron ("Monster"), and Susan Sarandon ("Dead Man Walking") in a spare, somber, and moving police procedural. Valleyof Elah
"Elah" is based on the notorious 2003 murder of Spc. Richard Davis by his fellow soldiers shortly after their unit arrived stateside from combat in
. At some point after a drunken brawl outside a strip club, Iraq was stabbed 32 times. His comrades-at-arms then dismembered his body, burnt it, and hid the remains in the woods. Davis
Working from Mark Boal's Playboy article, Haggis wrote the central role of the victim's father, a laconic retired Army sergeant, a former military policeman in
, for his mentor Clint Eastwood, but the 77-year-old told him he has retired from acting. So Haggis turned to 61-year-old Tommy Lee Jones, who, as his formidable performance in "Elah" demonstrates, is still very much in his prime. Vietnam
As a director, Haggis's strength is that he's not intimidated by his screenwriter's fame. Haggis edited out an hour of his own dialogue, making "Elah" far quieter than the sometimes brilliant but showy "Crash." Here, Haggis lets his superb cast carry the film through long silent takes.
For example, the morning after the corpse is sent to the coroner for identification, Jones is awoken by a knock on his motel room door. Outside is a soldier in full dress uniform. Having worn the same uniform to deliver the same message to other parents, the despairing father knows what's coming. For 15 seconds he struggles to prepare himself to receive the blow in the only way he knows, willing his tired body to stand at rigid military attention.
In a brief role, Sarandon is even better than Jones. Having lost her older son to a helicopter crash in training, she asks her husband, "Couldn't you have left me just one?" When he protests that he didn't tell their boy to enlist, she responds that their son couldn't have grown up in their home without feeling that he'd never be a man until he served. Jones has no answer.