© 2007 Ray Wong
A mystery at the core and inspired by true events, In the Valley of Elah is actually a complex social drama examining some tough issues that will without doubt generate debates and discussions.
Retired Sgt. Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones) gets a distress call from his son Mike (Jonathan Tucker) before Mike goes AWOL at the army base. The army jerks him around, and the local authorities won't give him any attention either: they insist on Hank contacting the military police. Then a burned, dismembered body is found near the military base. Mike's identity is confirmed. Suppressing his grief and his wife's (Susan Saradon) blames, Hank is determined to find out what happened and who killed his son.
At first, since the murder appears to have happened within military grounds, the case is out of the police's jurisdiction. They believe it's a drug deal gone bad. A sharp observer, Hank convinces Detective Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron) it's a cover-up. Sanders opens an active investigation against her colleagues' scrutiny. The circumstances lead Hank and Sanders to suspect a few of Mike's bunkmates, but there is not enough evidence to convince Sanders' superiors or the army to do anything. Frustration leads Mike to conduct his own investigations. What he finds shatters his own convictions.
Tommy Lee Jones (A Prairie Home Companion) has given us one of his most disciplined and authentic performances, worthy of an Oscar nomination. A quiet, reserved, and sharp man, Jones's character draws us in and never really lets go. You feel his anguish and agree with his determination, but at the same time you realize his flaws may have something to do with the tragedy. It's a truly sympathetic character, portrayed to perfection by Jones.
Charlize Theron (Aeon Flux) is convincing as the disenchanted detective who has to battle sexism at her job while being a single mother. Hank's case brings her back to the living, so to speak, and Theron's performance is heartfelt and precise. Susan Sarandon (Elizabethtown) doesn't have much to do as the grief-striken mother, but her portrayal is genuine and heart-wrenching. Jason Patric (The Alamo) and Josh Brolin (Grindhouse: Planet Terror) plays a pair of cops (Lt. Kirlander and Chief Buckwald respectively) with enough gruffness and machismo to offset Theron's sensibility. Frances Fisher (The Kingdom) has a minor role that requires an unnecessary nude scene.
Written and directed by Paul Haggis (Crash), In the Valley of Elah evokes the same social consciousness of his Oscar-winning film about racism. This time, it's about war. Haggis doesn't shy away from explaining the symbolism of the film's Biblical title, and at times it feels preachy. As a mystery, the film excels in drawing us in and keeping us guessing. While the resolution is rather predictable, Haggis succeeds in keeping the plot close to the vest. The slow reveal of the truth is breathtaking, especially with the deft use of video footage (taken from a cell phone), bits and pieces of evidence and information gathered from eye witnesses. These plot elements also reveal the characters effectively, making us really root for Hank and Sanders. Their relationship is genuine and the dialogue sharp and believable.
However, Haggis tends to over-dramatize and manipulate. While not as blatant as Crash, the film does, at times, feel like an anti-war propaganda as Haggis continues to hit us with images of war and the repetitive themes, especially how our children can be turned into monsters under the most unforgiving circumstances. Casting ultra-liberal Susan Sarandon in the film as a grieving mother doesn't help either. To his credit, though, Haggis tries to counterbalance that point of view with sympathetic characters, especially through Tommy Lee Jones' character, who is a pro-war veteran. At the end, however, the film still feels one-sided, and one may find it objectionable and resent the fact that Haggis tries to beat us over the head with his "message": wars are bad and people are ruined.
Well made, taut and suspenseful, In the Valley of Elah is definitely a message movie. Depending on your political views, you may either agree or disagree with the film, thus like or dislike it as a result. As a movie, the film boasts some powerful images, serious themes, and exceptional performances. Tommy Lee Jones mesmerizes.
Stars: Tommy Lee Jones, Charlize Theron, Jason Patric, Susan Sarandon, James Franco, Barry Corbin, Josh Brolin, Frances Fisher
Director: Paul Haggis
Writers: Paul Haggis, Mark Boal
Distributor: Warner Independent
MPAA Rating: R for strong violent and disturbing content, language and some sexuality/nudity
Running Time: 121 Minutes
Script – 8
Performance – 9
Direction – 7
Cinematography – 8
Editing – 7
Production – 8
Total – 7.7 out of 10