This 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