Jeffrey Wells over at Hollywood Elsewhere has already come out as Elah's first big Oscar pundit cheerleader. I'm hearing considerably less enthusiasm from an industry reader who I know has seen it (he wishes to remain anonymous) and he wasn't at all averse to it going in. He thinks the screenplay is strong but that the movie fails to capitalize on it. Like Wells, he feels confident that Tommy Lee Jones is in the shortlist [my current Actor predictions] --going so far in our conversation as to compare Jones' film carrying work with a few very recent Oscar winners. Elsewhere, no pun intended, he doesn't see the film getting very far feeling that it comes up lacking in impact. Charlize Theron, though solid, has no character arc or 'Oscar scene' and he shares the early bird concern about Sarandon's grieving mother performance: very moving but too little screentime for Oscar traction.
I haven't seen the film but I'm personally feeling good about Susan Sarandon as a shortlister [I'll soon move her up on my Supporting Actress page], screentime be damned. If a perfomer is well liked enough, a glorified cameo can do the trick (Geraldine Page, The Pope of Greenwhich Village anyone?). Backgrounded roles can have big impact on voters if actors nail a memorable scene (Miranda Richardson, Damage anyone? Or try winners like Judi Dench in Shakespeare in Love or Beatrice Straight in Network).
Other than the very strange and unfortunate case of her snubbing for Bull Durham (1988, seriously what happened there: big juicy comeback, best performance to date from an acclaimed actor, critically hailed hit film) Sarandon has been very well looked after by Oscar voters since the early days of her career when she got a surprise Lead nomination for Atlantic City (1981) --she had campaigned as supporting. Since that time Sarandon has been nominated for most of her statue friendly work. Grieving mothers are an ancient and effective 'Oscar Bait' staple. It's early but I think she's probably in.
What's your gut telling you about In the Valley of Elah and its Oscar chances and/or quality? Or are you more excited for the other political hot buttons coming out: The Kingdom, Rendition, Lions for Lambs or The Kite Runner.