In the valley of Elah, a shadowy murder case; a corporate conspiracy catches up with Michael Clayton.
Courtesy of Warner Home Video
"In the Valley of Elah," directed and written by Paul Haggis, was among the first of a glut of Iraq war films rolled out late last year, and among the first to be flatly rejected by American audiences (total gross: less than $7 million). But unlike other films, "Elah" processes the conflict tangentially, in concentric circles. Vietnam veteran Hank (Tommy Lee Jones) gets a call that his son, Mike, has disappeared from Fort Rudd, only a week after returning from Iraq. Mike goes to investigate; but like all good flawed heroes, he doesn't know when to stop, and ends up burrowing deep into a Grade-A murder mystery. "Elah" is entertaining to watch. It is, as has been noted elsewhere, not really a war movie, but a military thriller, full of razor-sharp, dextrous performances. But Haggis has tried so hard to pack it thick with multiple lessons – on grief, on death, on war, on the Bible – that it feels like an overpacked freight train loose on the rails. Grade:
Michael Clayton (R)
"Michael Clayton" opens with a night worker mopping the floors of a New York law firm. But the story's real janitor is the titular character (George Clooney), a rumpled lackey who cleans up unseemly affairs for the company. This time, he finds himself in mortal danger when a fellow lawyer (Tom Wilkinson) decides to go all Erin Brockovich on a corporate client that is producing harmful chemicals. The crackling climax features a face-off with that firm's chief counsel (Tilda Swinton), whose very stare is enough to induce frostbite. In the commentary track, writer Tony Gilroy reveals his mistakes as a first-time director. (Never write a scene with the words, "just before dawn," he says.) The film's multiple Oscar nods are hardly a blunder. Grade: