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Review: Weekend's lead player -- violence

  • Story Highlights
  • Toronto films reflect times, show corrosive impact of violence
  • "The Brave One" is vigilante tale with sometimes confused morals
  • "Eastern Promises" a satisfying thriller from David Cronenberg
  • "Into the Valley of Elah" has Oscar performance from Tommy Lee Jones
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By Tom Charity
Special to CNN
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TORONTO, Ontario (CNN) -- What world are we living in? That's the question that kept coming up again and again over the course of the Toronto International Film Festival, which wraps this weekend.

Jones

Tommy Lee Jones plays the father of a missing Marine in "In the Valley of Elah."

TIFF spans the anniversary of 9/11, and the ramifications of that day seem to reverberate more loudly with each passing year. The festival might be dominated by the Hollywood mainstream, but escapism had no place on the agenda.

Moviemakers are taking a long hard look at the violence visited on us, and, increasingly, the violence we're meting out in return. There is a sense of dismay in these films, a pervasive moral revulsion that we haven't felt in American cinema since the Watergate era.

  • In Alan Ball's troubling, controversial "Nothing Is Private," an Arab-American teenager is raped by a National Guardsman (Aaron Eckhart) as George H.W. Bush launches the first Gulf War.
  • British documentarist Nick Broomfield's "Battle for Haditha" contains a dramatization of the massacre of Iraqi civilians by U.S. Marines. The film is a less sophisticated but stingingly authentic counterpart to Brian De Palma's digital feature, "Redacted."
  • And in "Reservation Road," a New England professor (Joaquim Phoenix) becomes obsessed with avenging his son, killed in a hit-and-run accident. His first, innocent, suspect is a Saudi diplomat. In fact, the accidental killer is a near neighbor, Mark Ruffalo, the professor's own lawyer. Directed by Terry George ("Hotel Rwanda") this is a downbeat, depressing study of loss, guilt and anger.
  • Three TIFF films open Friday in the U.S., and all three offer searing portraits of the impact of violence.

    In "The Brave One," Jodie Foster goes much further than "Reservation Road's" Phoenix. The film is another conflicted liberal vigilante movie, this time with a female empowerment angle. Brutally beaten in a Central Park mugging that claims the life of her fiance, Foster soon turns Travis Bickle on us, picking up a gun and cleaning up the streets on behalf of frustrated cop Terrence Howard.

    "The Brave One" director Neil Jordan, like Terry George, is an Irish Republican well-versed in the political consequences of Old Testament justice, and his weirdly artificial uptown remake of Abel Ferrara's grungy 1981 film "Ms. 45" feels at war with itself. Set in a fairytale New York where danger lurks in every corner store, the movie dresses its slummy scenario in pretentious dialogue and a woozy camera style. But "Brave's" Foster gets away with more than Ferrara's avenging angel.

    Conversely, Naomi Watts plays an angel of mercy -- a nurse in a London maternity ward -- in "Eastern Promises." This is a conventional but satisfying thriller from director David Cronenberg, who more than lives up to his own history of violence (yes, he made that film, as well as "Dead Ringers" and "Scanners") in three grisly set pieces, most spectacularly a sweaty nude knife fight in a public bathhouse.

    Stumbling across the ruthlessly macho, tribal underworld of the Russian mafia, Watts is forced to put her trust in one of the kingpin's henchmen, Viggo Mortensen -- but it's by no means clear where his true loyalties lie. Mortensen, as he was in "A History of Violence," is terrific.

    Writer-director Paul Haggis also draws on thriller conventions in his first film since the Oscar-winning "Crash," "In the Valley of Elah." Tommy Lee Jones plays the father of a recently returned Marine soon reported AWOL. Looking for answers, Jones goes to the military base; his search turns into a murder investigation when a charred, dismembered body is discovered in the desert.

    The murder mystery itself is not particularly artfully assembled -- a series of scrambled video clues are spun out over several days because the technician is "busy," while jurisdictional squabbling between the cops (Charlize Theron) and military police serves a similar holding purpose -- but Haggis has the real goods in Tommy Lee Jones.

    Resolute and fiercely proud, but also weathered and visibly weary, Jones has a craggy integrity that bears the brunt of this story's distress full on, like a body blow. It's a performance that seems to embody what a lot of Americans are feeling right now, and even at this early stage, I'd be surprised if Jones doesn't get the Oscar for it.

    "In the Valley of Elah" -- the name comes from the locale of David's battle against Goliath -- is not a great film, but its acute sense of anguish and betrayal may resonate in the same way that 1978's "The Deer Hunter" did 30 years ago. And, if you'll recall, "The Deer Hunter" was also rewarded by the Motion Picture Academy -- as the best picture of the year. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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