In the Valley of Elah (2007)
In the Valley of Elah (2007)

Genre: Crime Drama and Mystery Running Time: 2 hrs. 1 min.

Release Date: September 28th, 2007 MPAA Rating: R

Director: Paul Haggis Actors: Tommy Lee Jones, Charlize Theron, Jason Patric, Susan Sarandon, James Franco, Josh Brolin, Frances Fisher, Barry Corbin, Wes Chatham

 


 

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nparalleled performances, a wickedly thought-provoking script, and masterly direction by “Crash” director Paul Haggis skyrocket “In the Valley of Elah” toward the top of the list of best films of the year. While the process may be too leisurely for general audiences, the payoff is intense and brilliantly troubling; it’s the kind of picture that demands repeat viewings. Many will walk away from this film with contrasting interpretations of the conspiratorial nature of the Armed Forces and the detrimental effect war has on human lives (along with, perhaps, the biblical reference of the title), but there’s an undeniable entertainment value to the storytelling that can be appreciated by all.

Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones) makes a trip to an Army base in search of his son Mike, who is reported to have gone missing. Shortly after his arrival, badly burned body parts are discovered in a field near a gun shop, and they’re soon identified as Mike’s remains. Heartbroken and angry, Hank sets out to discover the heavily guarded secrets behind his son’s death and those responsible for this heinous crime. Along the way, Detective Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron), a local cop taking pity on Deerfield’s situation, employs extra measures to ensure that the truth is uncovered.

A deceptively simple murder mystery, “In the Valley of Elah” probes the circumstances behind a vicious killing that entwines the U.S. Army and a neighboring town. Essentially a vehicle for Haggis to comment on the chaos of the Iraqi War, the mixture of crime, drama, suspense, and action enables this to become both an emotionally engaging and technical exercise in filmmaking. The details build very slowly, but the narrative is careful to introduce just enough new elements in each scene to allow the plot to thicken like the very best whodunits, infusing each clue with additional gravity. Occasionally, Haggis does misstep with the introduction of unnecessary elements, which could have been cut to speed up the progression, but the time spent on developing characters makes the impact of the revelations just that much more potent.

Tommy Lee Jones fleshes out a deep, complex persona that lives by a strict sense of honor, influenced heavily by the discipline of the Army, for which he served as a sergeant for many years. He is anxious to correct the actions of those who are ignorant to the importance of patriotism, such as preventing a U.S. flag from touching the ground, or accidentally raising it upside down – which symbolizes a state of disorder and disarray. Yet as he unearths more about the tragic death of his son – and breaks several laws to gain answers and reap vengeance – he begins to wizen to the corrupted clockwork of the military system and its unwavering defense of its image (and by extension, its members).

In a complementary fashion, Theron’s Emily is tough and stern, battling the likes of discrimination and sexism within the police force. Her determination and stubbornness rival that of Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling (from “The Silence of the Lambs”), particularly as she refuses to shy away from grittier field work, like chasing suspects through grungy alleys. Strong female roles like this are too few in cinema, giving the male characters a formidable match for intelligence and prowess. Both leads succeed sensationally in this moving drama of crumbled expectations and shocking motives that, though domineeringly focused in its perspective, becomes a powerhouse of moral conflicts and unpredictable resolutions.

– Mike Massie

  • 9/10