In the Valley of Elah (2007)

Elah-posterThis was writer-director Paul Haggis’ follow-up to Crash (2004), his Oscar-winning look at the racial and social fault-lines bisecting a large cast of character in modern-day Los Angeles. In the Valley of Elah is also a very topical film, looking at the impact of the war in Iraq, but is a much more contained film, using a murder investigation to tie its various plot strands together. Charlize Theron is the cop and Tommy Lee Jones the father of a soldier who, ironically, is murdered near his base after returning home from a tour in Iraq.

The following is offered for Todd Mason’s Tuesday’s Overlooked Film at his Sweet Freedom blog.

Detective Emily Sanders: I was wondering if you knew if your son had any enemies.
Hank Deerfield: You mean other than the thousands of Iraqis and foreign fighters that have been trying to kill him till a couple of weeks ago?

Hank Deerfield (Jones), having already lost one son to the military in a training accident, instantly heads to Fort Rudd, New Mexico when his son is reported AWOL. He used be a sergeant there and still lives very much by the military code – but he was also an MP and knows how to run an investigation. Detective Sanders (Theron) is initially put in charge, but is soon muscled out by internal politics – she has the ear of the Chief (John Brolin) but her colleagues she only got promoted by sleeping with him – by her own colleagues and by attempts to whitewash the investigation by military personnel (as exemplified by Jason Patric’s Lieutenant Kirklander). Bu then the body of the soldier turns up, suggesting a possible drugs link as well as to events that occurred ‘in country.’ Hank realises that the investigation is not being run properly and through his own stubborn refusal to give in (and a growing sense of guilt about pushing his son into the military in the first place), ultimately is able to help Sanders find out what happened and also help her establish credibility within her own department and at home (she is single mother bringing up a six-year-old boy). The scene in which he re-tells her boy the story of David and Goliath (from which the film draws its title) is particularly memorable.

Hank Deerfield: That’s how you fight monsters. You lure them in close to you, you look them in the eye, you smack them down.

The film is based on ‘Death and Dishonor’ by Mark Boal (who went on to co-write Hurt Locker), an article first published in Playboy telling the true story of the investigation into the murder of Richard Davis (you can read it here). Haggis has said in interviews that the intention was to make a polemic about the war but couched in a murder mystery to make the content more palatable.

When I first saw this I thought the two parts of the story tended to cancel each other out, the plot not strong enough and the depiction of the distress caused to combatants and their families weakened by the split focus. On watching it again though it seems to me that the mixing and public and private pain, of personal guilt and political unease, is very deftly done. Indeed, along with an exceptional cast, it now seems to me that both the murder mystery and its contrast with the death and destruction being wrought overseas by young men and women who sometimes are sent into battle with little idea of why they are there and how to cope with the consequences, manage to hold their own. And it is only right at the end that we truly resolve the mystery of the young man’s death and just what is driving Hank to solve it, so you really do have to pay attention.

This is a low-key and restrained film, with a strong ensemble (Susan Sarandon, Frances Fisher and James Franco all have small but very important roles) and has many bizarre touches (such as Fisher’s eye-opening first appearance) that serve the film well as an investigation into warfare at home and overseas, within families and on an international scale.

An intelligent film, seamlessly executed and very well acted about the weight of personal and political responsibility – worth looking out for.

DVD Availability: Released quite a few years ago on DVD, which is still easy to find, this was only ever released in High Def in the now obsolete HD DVD format that lost out to Blu-ray. The film deserves better.  Thanks to Santosh for pointing out that this did get a Blu-ray release in 2008 in the UK – yay!

In the Valley of Elah (2007)
Director: Paul Haggis
Producer: Paul Haggis, Laurence Becsey, Darlene Caamano Loquet, Steve Samuels,  Patrick Wachsberger
Screenplay: Paul Haggis (from an article by Mark Boal)
Cinematography: Roger Deakins
Art Direction: Laurence Bennett
Music: Mark Isham
Cast: Tommy Lee Jones, Charlize Theron, Jason Patric, Susan Sarandon, Josh Brolin, Frances Fisher, James Franco

***** (4 fedora tips out of 5)

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22 Responses to In the Valley of Elah (2007)

  1. Margot Kinberg says:

    There are films like that, aren’t there, Sergio, that sort of sneak up on you. I’ve had that experience, too. And I’ve heard that this one was very much worth the view, so it’s good to know you ended up thinking so as well. Of course, I am partial to Tommy Lee Jones; I think he does some fine work. So I’m not surprised he delivers here.

  2. tracybham says:

    This movie seems to have passed me by. I have heard of it, but didn’t know much about it until I read your post. Sounds like I should seek it out.

  3. Patti Abbott says:

    A movie I meant to see and completely forgot. Thanks!

  4. Colin says:

    It’s a long time since I saw this but it is a fine movie and full of good performances from an exceptionally strong cast. Strange it hasn’t been put out on Blu-ray.

    • It is odd that, isn’t it? You would think the cast and crew would make it pretty saleable after all and it wasn;t some ultra low budget indie either. Having said that, I only really got the most out of it on a second viewing. I’m not entirely sure why now.

      • Colin says:

        Probably down to the construction of the story. There are a good many films where it takes a second viewing to get past the details and see the whole picture more clearly, as it were.

        • On the other hand, I was favourably taken with Haggis’ CRASH but then on second viewing found myself underwhelmed, finding it mostly too contrived (though the central car crash scene is incredibly powerful).

          • Colin says:

            Oh, I really disliked Crash, don’t think I could bear to sit through that again.

          • It was really intense and depressing – saw it at the pictures and then later on DVD bot not seen since. On the whole, I’m not sure Haggis’ director career has really kept its momentum as I thought NEXT THREE DAYS was pretty poor. Not seen THIRD PERSON though.

  5. Santosh Iyer says:

    I have seen this film. It is a brilliant film with a powerful message. Highly thought provoking. A must see film.
    However, there is a small flaw here.Hank has served in the Vietnam war and must have seen all the terrible events that took place in that war. So why should he be so shocked now ?

    • Thnaks Santosh – I suppose it is the realisation of what, and how, his son experienced, that has th emajor impact and his own role in sending him out there in the first place?

      • Santosh Iyer says:

        His role in sending his son out there is unexplainable since he has experienced the Vietnam war.
        The ending is superb. When I first saw the film, I did not realise the way the flag was hung at the end, since I did not have an exact idea of the American flag design. Only when I saw it it the second time, I saw the way the flag was hung and realised the full implication of the ending !

        • I think we are meant to think that the way he experienced the Vietnam conflict was in essence without questioning its aims but just following orders as he was always trained to do, belieing in the greater good, with complete confidence in his superiors – that is what seems to now be changing for the man.

  6. Santosh Iyer says:

    I find that the film is available in blu-ray format at amazon.

  7. Yvette says:

    Thanks for this, Sergio. As always, a thoughtful review. Never saw this, but I like Tommy Lee Jones very much. Though lately I haven’t been in the mood for things depressing, I’m still adding the title to my list.

  8. Sergio, I missed this film too. Thanks for reviewing it. The incentive for me would be Tommy Lee Jones and Susan Sarandon both of whom I like, having last seen them together in THE CLIENT. The rest of the cast looks good, I agree, and in particular the very solid Josh Brolin.

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