In The Valley of Elah
Murder mystery muddies the water of our post-Iraq world
In the Valley of Elah
Directed by Paul Haggis
Cast: Tommy Lee Jones, Charlize Theron, Susan Sarandon
Writer/director Paul Haggis follows up his Oscar-heavy string of assignments (Crash, Million Dollar Baby, Letters from Iwo Jima) with the quietly controversial, war-weary mystery In The Valley of Elah.
This shot-in-New-Mexico tale takes its title from the biblical parable of David and Goliath (the on-screen recitation of which will probably be enough to earn star Tommy Lee Jones another Academy Award). Jones stars as Hank Deerfield, a hardworking, salt-of-the-earth fella from Tennessee who gets word that his son, a soldier with the Army’s 82nd Airborne division has gone AWOL. This is news to Hank and his wife (Susan Sarandon), who believe young Mike is still off fighting in Iraq.
Assuming his son is just blowing off steam after returning stateside, Hank sets out in his pickup truck to the fictional New Mexican town of Fort Rudd (Albuquerque, doing humble duty) where Mike is supposed to be stationed. Nobody there seems particularly concerned with his son’s disappearance; but being an ex-military police officer himself, Hank’s instincts tell him something is wrong. Sure enough, Mike’s mutilated and burned body is discovered in the sunblasted desert several days later.
In The Valley of Elah concerns Hank’s quest to find out what happened to his son, both in Iraq and stateside that may have led to this terrible death. The film isn’t so much an indictment of America’s current political climate as a slow, deadly serious rumination on what it means to send young men off to war—any war, really. We ship them out with flags flying and plenty of patriotic bumper stickers to back them up, but what really happens to them in the fog of war, and what are they like when they come back?
Over the course of his dogged investigation, Hank comes to realize that maybe he didn’t know his son quite as well as he thought. Did the kid see something in Iraq, did he do something in Iraq, was he involved in drug smuggling or was this just some random, senseless killing? Even after decades of retirement, Hank is still Regular Army—shiny shoes, hospital corners on the bed and all. He’s a soldier, a patriot and he isn’t one to question authority. Is it possible that Hank’s gung-ho attitude may have, in some indirect way, led to his son’s untimely end?
Since he isn’t making any headway in his investigation, Hank turns to the local police for help. They’re at the end of their rope as well, having been cut out of the case by military authorities. Seems Mike’s murder took place 20 feet into military property, making this a federal issue. Hank elicits the sympathies of a harried police detective (Charlize Theron, trying not to look attractive and failing), who decides maybe there’s something more to this case than meets the eye.
In The Valley of Elah is very somber and contemplative. That’s more than fitting for the film’s overall mood, but it makes everything a bit slow-going. This may be a mystery, but it hardly qualifies as a thriller. Right-wing conspiracy theorists expecting a savage indictment of American military policy will be just as disappointed as left-wing conspiracy theorists expecting the same thing. In The Valley of Elah has a few things to say, politically speaking, but it does so in a soft voice. This isn’t Fahrenheit 9/11. It’s a very small, very personal tale of murder set against the backdrop of today’s post-traumatic-stress-filled world.
The acting and scripting are solid without being showy. Haggis resists any temptation to “heighten” reality. There are no big speeches here, no glaringly evil villains. Theron’s character, a single mother fighting old-fashioned sexism in the police department, seems burdened with a few stereotypical problems; but the actress underplays perfectly and helps move the plot along in a fairly organic way. Of course, just about everything hangs on the performance of Jones, whose tacit tough-guy persona and hangdog world-weariness are put to the ultimate test here. Hank Deerfield is a man marked by both duty and determination, a man whose belief system doesn’t waver much. Jones pulls it off with flying colors. ... Better make space on your mantle for another statue, Tommy.