IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH

Directed by Paul Haggis. 2007.


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Loosely based on the story of Richard Davis who was killed by fellow soldiers in Columbus, Georgia after returning from Iraq in 2003, In the Valley of Elah, Paul Haggis’ first feature since his Oscar winner Crash is a poignant reminder of how war robs people of their humanity. In one of the best performances of his career, Tommy Lee Jones is Hank Deerfield, a career military man whose son Mike (Jonathan Tucker) is reported as AWOL from his New Mexico base after returning from eighteen months in Iraq. What Hank discovers in searching for Mike is enough to shake his faith in an institution that had nurtured him and threaten his entire worldview. 

Though Deerfield is an ex-military man who knows the value of discipline and hyper-efficiency, he is a man who carries the scars of the death of his other son, killed in a military training accident. When he learns about Mike’s disappearance, he tries to calm the fears of his wife Joan (Susan Sarandon), but one can sense in the lines of sadness etched in his worn face that he is very worried.  In a very prophetic scene, as he sets out for the Army base to conduct his own investigation, he notices that an American flag is flying upside down, a symbol of international distress, and stops to teach the groundskeeper the difference. 

At the base, Deerfield is thwarted by the stonewalling of the military and the inept local police force and cannot get anywhere with Lt. Kirklander (Jason Patric) who is in charge of the missing person operation.  Fortunately, he finds a detective Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron) who is assigned to the case. Taunted by chauvinist fellow detectives who think she slept her way onto the squad, she is eager to prove herself as capable as her detractors. When Deerfield’s body is discovered, gruesomely cut up in an open field, Deerfield and Sanders work together to piece together the puzzle, suspecting the involvement of drugs and drug dealers. With the help of video left on Mike’s cell phone, however, he discovers secrets that begin to shake his faith in American institutions though he never questions his son’s actions. 

In one of the most moving sequences in the film, Hank tells Sanders little boy the biblical story of David who killed the giant Goliath with a slingshot in the valley of Elah. Deerfield soon understands, however, that it is not enough to fight your own fears in standing up to an adversary but it is necessary to treat the enemy as a human being while still doing your job. Mike and his fellow soldiers have been unable to erase the ugly violence they perpetrated on civilians in Iraq and have brought this self hatred home. In spite of a too literal ending that robs us of the power of our imagination and borders on the polemic, In the Valley of Elah is a compelling and moving film that makes certain we don not forget what the war in Iraq has done not only to our soldier’s bodies but to their minds and their souls as well. 

GRADE: A-

Howard Schumann
 
 
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