In the Valley of Elah
Director : Paul Haggis
Screenplay : Paul Haggis (story by Mark Boal & Paul Haggis)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2007
Stars : Tommy Lee Jones (Hank Deerfield), Charlize Theron (Det. Emily Sanders), Jason Patric (Lt. Kirklander), Susan Sarandon (Joan Deerfield), James Franco (Sgt. Dan Carnelli), Barry Corbin (Arnold Bickman), Josh Brolin (Chief Buchwald), Frances Fisher (Evie), Wes Chatham (Corporal Steve Penning), Jake McLaughlin (Spc. Gordon Bonner), Mehcad Brooks (Spc. Ennis Long), Jonathan Tucker (Mike Deerfield), Wayne Duvall (Detective Nugent), Victor Wolf (Private Robert Ortiez)
The title of Paul Haggis's In the Valley of Elah is taken from the Biblical story of David and Goliath, and the exact metaphorical implications of that well-worn tale of bravery in the face of overwhelming odds is as ambiguous as the film itself, which has the basic generic structure of a mystery thriller, but aspires to make a significant statement about the war in Iraq. Following up on Crash (2004), his divisive, Oscar-winning polemic about American race relations, Haggis has refused to retreat into any kind of safe zone in terms of subject matter, even if his approach has been softened. choosing to take his newfound clout and stab directly at the nation's soft spot is provocative in and of itself, and it speaks well of Haggis's commitment as a filmmaker. The fact that he doesn't come up with easy answers is a given: There aren't any. Thus, what the film has to offer is a series of questions without solutions, ending with a symbolic distress call for an embattled nation.
Tommy Lee Jones stars as Hank Deerfield, a retired military man and Vietnam veteran who hauls gravel for a living. Hank is clearly intended to represent all those quiet, determined, red-state stalwarts who grimly believe we need to stay the course; he's not a mindless follower, as many anti-war activists would like to believe of such men, but rather a man of his own convictions. Hank receives a phone call one morning that his son Mike (Jonathan Tucker), an Army specialist, has returned from his tour in Iraq and has summarily gone AWOL from his New Mexico base. With little fanfare Hank kisses his wife (Susan Sarandon) goodbye and heads out to find his son. He isn't there more than a day before Mike's charred, dismembered remains are found in a field a few miles from the base.
Hank is determined to find out what happened to “his boy,” even though he constantly runs up against bureaucratic naysaying and debates over military and civilian police jurisdictions. There are, of course, the surface questions to answer: What happened? Was Mike killed in a drug deal gone awry? Could his fellow soldiers have somehow been responsible? But, more importantly, there are the underlying questions: What could Mike have been involved in that would have led to his grisly death? And this links the investigation directly to Iraq as it becomes clear early on that his murder is somehow connected to his tour of duty. What could have happened there, halfway around the world, that would lead to his lonely death in a barren New Mexico field? (The unstated irony is that he survived the war only to meet his demise on the homefront.)
Hank works with what he has. He asks questions, examines the crime scene, and attempts to piece together corrupted video files from Mike's sun-baked cell phone, which are sent to him in fragments by a tech guru who can salvage them using powerful, but slow computer software. Each bit that arrives in Hank's inbox is like a puzzle piece, slowly forming into something he doesn't want to see, but feels compelled to anyway. This narrative device is clever, but it's also a bit forced in the way it sets up the possibility of an answer and then doles it out piece by piece as the narrative dictates. You get the sense that, when Haggis was writing the screenplay, he always knew that if things started to drag he could just have another piece of the video puzzle arrive.
Hank finds an ally in police detective Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron), who understands both his intense need to find out what happened and his frustration with the way the system works. The scenes between Hank and Emily are some of the film's best, as they bring a genuine sense of human warmth and underlying sadness to a film that is constantly threatening to become a one-note procedural. A single mother working in a male-dominated world (an early scene shows that her fellow detectives are less than supportive), Emily's social marginalization makes her all the more determined in her police work, even when Hank steps on her toes in his own dogged pursuit of the truth.
When In the Valley of Elah works, it is mostly due to the presence of Tommy Lee Jones, who manages to be simultaneously authoritative and lost, powerful and weary. He knows what needs to be done, but is often powerless to do anything. He is a man of few words, but everything we need to know we can read in the lines of Jones's face and the light in his eyes. He is an actor of such convincing interiority that he could have gone through the entire film without speaking a line of dialogue and still conveyed everything he needed. Unfortunately, the screenplay saddles his character with some inconsistencies and convictions that ring somewhat false. For example, his contention that Mike's fellow soldiers couldn't have possibly killed him because they fought together seems a bit naïve for a veteran of a war in which one of the primary problems was soldiers fragging their commanding officers.
There are other problems with the film, as well, most of which relate to the manner in which Haggis hinges his critique of the war in Iraq to his police procedural. It's a well-meaning film, and parts of it are deeply moving both emotionally and intellectually. Haggis has the resolve to give us a central character who personifies everything that is good (willpower, resolve, belief) and bad (repression, racism) about the American heartland. Yet, in contrasting Hank's pursuit of the truth with the military's, Haggis unwittingly creates a burden of falsified nostalgia for a past in which wars were somehow good--when men were good soldiers who fought the good fight and then came home to be good citizens. It's harder to tell if In the Valley of Elah is critical of the war in Iraq or what America itself has become.
Copyright ©2007 James Kendrick
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All images copyright ©2007 Warner Independent Pictures