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Quiet desperation: Theron and Jones in Valley.

A Quiet Storm

By Laura Leon

In the Valley of Elah

Directed by Paul Haggis

Who would have thought that the single most powerful moment in cinema this year involves a piece of toilet paper? In Paul Haggis’ stunning drama In the Valley of Elah, a retired military policeman, Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones), sets off to a New Mexico barracks, from where his son Mike, just back from Iraq, has gone missing. Deerfield is gruff, a man of few words whose military background is evident in the way he makes his hotel bed and attempts, sans iron, to maintain the crease in his pant legs. Frustrated at the apparent lack of interest in his son’s case from either the Army or the local police department, he strides into a garish and depressing series of topless bars and gun shops, searching for clues. A nick from shaving—a rare sign of nerves—begins to spew blood, just as an Army representative, ominous in full dress, appears at his door. Hank retires to the bathroom to stanch the flow of blood, knowing just what his visitor has come to inform him of, and in these few seconds, the precision with which Deerfield tears a piece of toilet paper—just the right size to cover his cut—reveals his heroic attempt to keep calm, even sane, in the brief time that remains before hearing those dreaded words, before having to accept devastating loss.

In the Garden of Elah is full of powerful moments, but not the kind involving big bangs or histrionics. Hank’s reserve and stoicism dominate the screen, reflecting an increasingly boundless sense of horror and loss. As he wends his way through the twists and turns of his son’s final hours, desperately trying to find out not just “who done it,” but why, he becomes more and more aware that the world he’s living in is vastly different from anything he’s encountered or experienced before, including, presumably, Vietnam. Haggis (Crash) borrows a little from movies like The Conversation, in the way that information is forthcoming not as a whole piece, but in dribs and drabs. Hank pores over a smattering of images and sounds recovered from Mike’s damaged camera phone, searching for anything that will shed a light, but the images signify nothing that is recognizable to even his experienced eyes. Throughout, shards of news about Iraq are quietly omnipresent, as CNN and Fox play innocuously in the backgrounds of diners and waiting rooms.

Hank’s quest for the truth is shared by Detective Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron), a single mother aching to prove her mettle on the force. Theron is magnificent, displaying a steely intelligence and ferocious nerve that meld beautifully with Jones’ reserve. While Hank, with one notable exception, never loses that reserve, Emily fearlessly goes toe-to-toe against her commanding officer, the head of the Army investigation, a recalcitrant suspect—anybody, really, who stands between her and finding out what the hell happened to Mike Deerfield. Thankfully, Haggis refrains from having Hank and Emily’s relationship, such as it is, develop into anything either romantic or even cute.

The murder investigation is suspenseful, with the motivation and background details of Mike’s death remaining murky until a shocking climax, but it’s really a foundation on which to build a gripping indictment of the Iraq War and, perhaps, the state of our nation. As Hank delves into Mike’s remembrances, he sees a transformation, from good kid with a football to something far more dangerous, even alien. At one point, Hank’s wife, Julie (Susan Sarandon), blasts into him for presenting such a positive image of the military to both of her sons, thereby casting their fate (Mike’s older brother, we learn, was killed two years earlier in a helicopter crash). Her maternal grief is raw and savage, a marked contrast to her husband’s silent suffering.

As Hank ponders Mike’s final gift to him, one can’t help but think of John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards from The Searchers, who famously closes the movie with a stance and expression, framed on the outside of a farmhouse, that speak volumes about the disappearance of one’s own way of life, of thinking, and the acknowledgement of a new and vastly foreign world. Unlike Ethan, Hank has something to say, in a last act that will resonate with anybody disgusted and dismayed by the callous waste of life, world opinion and opportunities evidenced by our current situation.

Kill ’em All

Resident Evil: Extinction

Directed by Russell Mulcahy

In the third installment of the Resident Evil games-to-movies franchise, there are even more zombies for the series’ sexy mutant, Alice (Milla Jovovich), to battle—that is, if you can call it battling, since the zombies are easily dispatched. A shot or blow to the head, or decapitation, or evisceration, the traditional methods for undoing the undead, are deployed in Resident Evil: Extinction with the regularity of a game, and the encounters have apparently lost something in the transfer from console to big screen, though the post-apocalypse set design is rather arresting. In this near-future scenario, most of the human population has been turned into zombies by the T-virus, a product-run-amok of a corporate laboratory. In between zombie attacks and counterattacks is the plot, which is stuffed with technological and biogenetic horrors, including a massive flock of killer crows that was sickened by eating zombie carcasses. If the crow attacks weren’t such a ripoff of Hitchcock’s The Birds, an allusion to West Nile Virus might’ve been more wittily noticeable.

In the opening sequence, Alice uses her martial artistry to escape from an underground lab, where she is attacked by a succession of foes for no apparent reason. She guns her way aboveground, where her first encounter with other survivors is an ambush by a posse of maniacs and their pack of skinless demon dogs. Eventually, Alice catches up with some comrades from the previous films and, after using telekinesis to save some of them from the aforementioned crows, she joins them on a caravan traveling to Las Vegas for supplies. (Extinction owes almost as much to Road Warrior as it does to the games and George Romero.)

Though the gore is graphically snazzy—shots of zombies chomping on human flesh are the preferred shock tactic—the action choreography is second-rate. And as if an entire country’s worth of zombies weren’t enough, the corporation’s mad scientist (Iain Glen) clones a zombie commando unit. Director Russell Mulcahy (Highlander) is a former music videographer, and his forte is style: The film’s fashionably desaturated palette and the cast’s stylishly survivalist attire almost compensate for the eventual drudgery of timed-release zombie disposal.

—Ann Morrow

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