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In the Valley of Elah

Warner Bros. // R // February 19, 2008
List Price: $35.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted March 1, 2008 | E-mail the Author
In the Valley of Elah takes its title from the story of David and Goliath, and considering that it was among the first of the recent wave of Iraq-inspired movies, the symbolism of a small, determined, unlikely upstart against an indomitable military powerhouse might seem obvious enough. That's not quite what Paul Haggis envisioned, though, and as a writer/director not exactly renowned for his subtlety, those scattered few who missed his intended analogy get to have it ham-fistedly bludgeoned over their heads in the movie's last few moments. To Haggis' credit, he has acquired a better grasp of how to more skillfully convey his political and social commentary in the few years since Crash, but In the Valley of Elah is still a flawed movie. It's a slow burning procedural with a political bent and a somewhat familiar message about how war can shatter even the best of men, but it's at its best when it shrugs off the nuts and bolts of the investigation into Mike Deerfield's disappearance and focuses instead on the anguish of its two lead characters.

Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones) cut his teeth in the MP investigating crimes, and the retired sergeant finds himself on the other end of the phone when he's informed that his son Mike (Jonathan Tucker) has gone AWOL. Hank didn't even know his son was back on these shores after a tour in Iraq, and he sets out in his aging truck to Fort Rudd in the hopes of tracking down Mike before things careen too far out of control. Hank doesn't get much in the way of help; the military brass is understandably occupied, fighting a war and all, and harried detective Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron) wearily tells Hank that it's out of her jurisdiction. With all of his friends at the base long since retired and those who've taken their place unwilling or unable to lend a hand, Hank's left to fend for himself. He dusts off his weathered detective skills and sets out on his own investigation, discovering that Mike isn't the virtuous son he thought he knew. He's pitted against an unfamiliar world of drugs, self-interest, and shattered minds.

If anything about In the Valley of Elah carries any sort of emotional impact, it's owed entirely to Tommy Lee Jones. 2007 proved to be an extraordinary year for Jones, from an exceptional turn in No Country for Old Men to his deservedly Academy Award-nominated performance here. Beneath the gruff, weathered, embittered exterior is a man who's quietly grieving for his boys, disillusioned by the two things he felt as if he could truly place his faith in -- his country and his son -- and struggles with the realization that he's as much to blame for that sense of loss as anyone.

On the other hand, the character of Emily could've been lifted directly from any of a couple hundred other movies -- a frustrated cop who's looked down on purely because she's a woman and suffers through it because she thinks it's what's best for the son she's raising alone. Charlize Theron infuses Emily with her usual intensity, but she feels more like a plot device than a well-realized character.

In the Valley of Elah seems as if it started with a single message and was constructed backwards from there, and the skeleton of the story is somewhat uninspired. When Haggis hits a wall in the plot, he just has Hank open a video in his inbox or divine an answer based on his years as an MP, and everyone and everything immediately marches in lockstep. No matter what your feelings are on the conflict in Iraq, the concept of war as an dehumanizing, irrevocably transforming experience has been addressed much more deftly in many, many other movies. It's ironic that In the Valley of Elah takes its title from the Bible because it does feel as if Haggis is preaching, and I might've walked away from the film much more enthusiastically if he weren't so determined to triple-underline the morals of its story.

I'm left with deeply mixed feelings about In the Valley of Elah. As a mystery/procedural, it's competent but unremarkable. Charlize Theron's mighty dramatic talents are left largely untapped, and Haggis' political indignation leaves the final act of the movie seeming rather unsatisfying. It's not a matter of agreeing or disagreeing with his position; it's just a stance that's not portrayed all that skillfully. Still, I respect the fact that this is a movie about mourning, disillusionment, and responsibility, and it doesn't pretend that there are any easy answers to offer. In the Valley of Elah is critical about the inevitable side effects of war rather than the conflict in Iraq specifically, and it is telling that Mike's downfall came not in a desert thousands of miles away but a two day drive from his parents' modest home. Tommy Lee Jones here is truly outstanding, betraying Hank's detached, gruff exterior by the quiet anguish in his eyes, and it's his performance that defines the movie. In the Valley of Elah is ultimately good rather than great, but I found enough to appreciate in its strengths that it still comes Recommended.

Video: In the Valley of Elah looks wonderful in high definition. The scope photography is crisp and nicely defined, although the image does have a tendency to flatten out under low light. Black levels generally remain robust, and the wintery, desaturated palette is reproduced flawlessly on Blu-ray. As expected for a movie heading directly from theaters, there aren't any visible signs of age or wear, and the VC-1 compression is adept. Light ringing was periodically spotted around some edges, but it's not a constant concern and is easily ignored. This stands out as one of the stronger presentations I've seen from Warner in recent months.

Audio: Lossless audio is always appreciated, and In the Valley of Elah does indeed offer a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack. The subwoofer booms as Hank uncomfortably scours deafening strip clubs in search of his son, but otherwise, the sound design places its emphasis squarely on Mark Isham's score and the dialogue that drives the film. It's a technically sound mix that suits the movie, although it's by design not terribly flashy or immersive.

Along with the lossless audio, In the Valley of Elah also includes Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtracks and subtitle streams in English, French, and Spanish.

Extras: The extras on In the Valley of Elah are surprisingly lean, limited to just a pair of standard definition featurettes and a deleted subplot. The additional scenes (8 min.) follow Hank as he tracks down his son's girlfriend, and it's so clunky and repetitive that it was rightly trimmed out. The two featurettes -- "After Iraq" (28 min.) and "Coming Home" (15 min.) -- are making-of pieces that incorporate the reality of the war into their framework. "After Iraq" takes a look at some of the actual soldiers in the supporting cast as well as the real-life incident that inspired the film, and "Coming Home" focuses on the difficult readjustment as mentally shattered soldiers return from tours overseas with little-to-no assistance from their communities or the military. Both of these obviously take a hard-line political stance.

Conclusion: As flawed as In the Valley of Elah may be, it's buoyed by such an outstanding lead performance by Tommy Lee Jones that the movie's worth recommending on those merits alone. The extras are meager, but the film looks fantastic in high definition and certainly sounds nice enough on Blu-ray. Recommended.
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