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In the Valley of Elah

In the Valley of Elah
Warner DVD
2007 / Color / 2:35 anamorphic widescreen / 121 min. / Street Date February 19, 2008 / 27.98
Starring Tommy Lee Jones, Charlize Theron, Jason Patric, Susan Sarandon, James Franco, Barry Corbin, Josh Brolin, Frances Fisher
Cinematography Roger Deakins
Production Design Laurence Bennett
Art Direction Gregory S. Hooper
Film Editor Jo Francis
Original Music Mark Isham
Written by Paul Haggis, Mark Bobal
Produced by Laurence Becsey, Darlene Caamano, Paul Haggis, Steve Samuels, Patrick Wachsberger
Directed by Paul Haggis

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

In the Valley of Elah takes a lot on its shoulders. It's a murder mystery with good performances from popular actors, but it's also a socially conscious drama about the Iraq war. Its maker Paul Haggis wrote and directed the awkward (but celebrated) Crash, and co-wrote Flags of Our Fathers. Clint Eastwood's Iwo Jima movie took a downbeat look at American heroism and public relations in WW2, and didn't gather a huge following. In the Valley of Elah was soundly rejected at the boxoffice, yet it's one of the best films of the year. At the time of this writing, Tommy Lee Jones has been honored with an Academy nomination for Best Actor.


Ex-military policeman Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones) is told that his son Mike, a Marine just back from Iraq, has disappeared from a New Mexico base. Leaving his wife Joan (Susan Sarandon) behind, Hank drives from Tennessee to investigate personally. Mike's buddies can't account for his whereabouts, so Hank enlists the aid of local detective Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron). When Mike's body is found dismembered and burned in an empty lot, military investigator Lt. Kirklander (Jason Patric) puts the case off limits and gives Hank flaky clues that Mike was involved in smuggling drugs from Iraq. But Hank finds inconsistencies in the Army's version of events. He also pieces together disturbing personal impressions of Mike from other people, impressions that conflict with the Hank Mike thought he knew.

Telling the public unpopular truths is the Kiss of Death for commercial filmmaking; it's difficult to jump on the bandwagon for a picture that presents American soldiers in a less than heroic light. In the Valley of Elah is an exceptionally skilled 'social issue' movie that doesn't preach to the audience. Staunch military man Hank Deerfield can't sleep in a motel bed without first remaking it, Marine Corps style. Everyone from his Vietnam generation has retired from the service, and he falls back on his own experience as an M.P. Sergeant to penetrate the public relations stonewall erected by the slick Lt. Kirklander. Hank goads frustrated civilian detective Emily Sanders into investigating Mike's murder, and she butts heads with Kirklander as well as her own boss (Josh Brolin, who appeared in no fewer than four noted films in 2007). A picture of the 'new' military begins to form. Forced to fight against urban guerillas, some soldiers accept random killing as normal procedure. Drug use and extreme behavior are not uncommon. Some soldiers have serious stress disorder problems when they come back to the states that shows itself in violent episodes and trouble with the law. Hank believes that soldiers that fight together are incapable of doing each other harm, but times have changed.

At one point suspicions lead to a Mexican-American member of Mike's unit, Ortiz (Victor Wolf), who could have been Mike's drug connection, at least in the fantasy floated by Lt. Kirklander. Because of lowered enlistment standards, Ortiz has been accepted in the Marines despite a history of criminal arrests. While Hank is looking for villains, evidence accumulates that his boy was no angel. Witnesses say that Mike became abusive with a bar dancer, and his own friends call him a hothead and a loner. Hank studies the cryptic video clips recorded on Mike's cell phone, which give the impression that his son may have tortured a wounded prisoner while on patrol in Iraq.

Haggis and co-writer Mark Boal let the audience discover for themselves what's going on, through telling details. Hank catches bits of TV news that show unending violence and killing while assuring the viewer that the war is achieving success. Cooperation from the military comes only when Detective Sanders forces the issue or finds new evidence countering Lt. Kirklander's denials and coverups. Other scenes are unfortunately not as subtle. Hank tells the Sanders boy the bedtime Bible story of David and Goliath, which oversimplifies Hank's idealism: Hank must have had a very positive experience in Vietnam to be so naí about the behavior of soldiers in war. Emily comes to regret a decision to ignore the cries for help from the wife of a returned soldier, who is exhibiting dangerously abusive behavior. And the movie finishes with a terribly heavy-handed scene at a flagpole. Hank sends out a personal message of 'national distress' that tells us he's converted to a different way of thinking. That kind of hamfisted symbolism is no longer embraced by the audience.

But overall, In the Valley of Elah is a film of substance and wisdom: the war is having very negative effects on the soldiers who see combat. Tommy Lee Jones is at his best in a role that clearly interests him; we immediately like his no-nonsense, quietly competent Hank Deerfield. Charlize Theron is likewise impressive as the caring professional dissed by her fellow detectives. Susan Sarandon has the thankless role of the traumatized mother, bitter that both of her sons have died in the service -- unfortunately, Sarandon's very presence pushes the film deeper into liberal message territory. The always-game Frances Fisher does a daring turn as a topless waitress. Some of the young actors playing Mike's Marine buddies are ex-soldiers. Wes Chatham is especially effective as a disturbed corporal hiding behind a veneer of military manners. He looks like Doug McClure, only more clean-cut.

Warners' DVD of In the Valley of Elah is presented in a flawless enhanced transfer with excellent sound. Two featurettes are included, a behind-the-scenes piece on the filming (some of which was accomplished in Morocco) and a second assemblage of thoughts and observations from the filmmakers and actors, some of whom redundantly voice their opinions on the war. The couple whose experience inspired the film are also interviewed. Their veteran son was murdered by his own comrades upon his return from Iraq. The father says that he told his son not to enlist, because the war "was all about oil."

A deleted scene is actually an interesting full reel that fits in right after Hank's first visit to his son's barracks. He searches phone books for a woman who knew Mike, only to find her in a VA clinic for soldiers who have lost limbs in combat. Some of the shots have finished CGI work to remove her arm and leg, and others do not. The very good actress's name is not mentioned, and I did not find her in the IMDB's database either. NOTE, 2.20.08: an unidentified reader tells me that the actress we're looking for may be Judy Marte.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, In the Valley of Elah rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Two featurettes, deleted scenes
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 16, 2008

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2008 Glenn Erickson

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