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October 2007
IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH

By Melissa Walters

IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH

 

Distributor: Warner Independent Pictures
Director: Paul Haggis
Producers: Paul Haggis, Larry Becsey, Patrick Wachsberger, Steve Samuels and Darlene Caamano Loquet
Screenwriter: Paul Haggis
Cast: Tommy Lee Jones, Charlize Theron, Susan Sarandon, Jonathan Tucker, Jason Patric, James Franco, Frances Fisher, Tim McGraw, Mehcad Brooks, Wes Chatham
Rating: R (for violent and disturbing content, language and some sexuality/nudity)

 


   

Paul Haggis, the Oscar winning screenwriter of Crash and Million Dollar Baby, co-wrote and directs yet another compelling, relevant and poignant screenplay, In the Valley of Elah. Based on the case of Specialist Richard R. Davis, who was murdered four years ago after returning from Iraq, this film examines the morality of war and its effects on the men and women who serve through the drama of a murder mystery.

In the Valley of Elah, Vietnam veteran and former military police, Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones) finds that his routine existence in Tennessee is suddenly disturbed by a phone call from Fort Rudd. Hank is advised that his youngest son Mike (Jonathan Tucker), recently returned from a tour of duty in Iraq, has gone AWOL from base. Suspecting something is amiss when he can not reach is son, Hank sets out to New Mexico reassuring his wife Joan (Susan Sarandon), that he would locate their son.

Deterred by the indifference of the military investigators and the evasive answers of Mike’s platoon members, Hank seeks out the local New Mexico police for assistance. Citing jurisdictional conflict, the local police deny Hank’s pleas for help. Hank is left to try to decipher the mystery of his son’s disappearance from images in a camera phone that he managed to misappropriate from Mike’s quarters.

Only after discovering Mike’s dismembered and charred body, does Detective Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron), lobby to obtain jurisdiction of the murder investigation. A single mother of a young boy, battling daily sexual harassment from her male co-workers, Emily is determined to prove her credibility. Together she and Hank battle the military wall of silence in an effort to discover the truth about Hank’s son. Their quest for answers leads them both on a journey of self discovery.

Patriotic Hank must cope with the anger of his grief stricken wife who blames her sons’ stint in the military as solely motivated by their need to placate their father. Hank is forced to reassess the validity of military service; a service to which both Hank’s sons sacrificed their lives; and a service that Hank can no longer deny has a devastating impact on all of its survivors. Indoctrinated in a world of violence and aggression, these soldiers cannot let go even in times and places of peace and civility.

The supporting performances of those involved in the military cover-up, including those of Jason Patric (Lt. Kirklander), Jake McLaughlin (Spc. Bonner), Wes Chatham (Corporal Penning) and Mehcad Brooks (Spc. Long) were highly effective. While Sarandon’s abilities are underutilized due to her shortage of scenes, Jones capitalizes on his screen time offering his most powerful performance to date. The deep lines in his face served him well; Jones manages to succeed in displaying both the sorrow and subdued rage behind the stoic façade of the career military man.

Haggis enlists the aid of Roger Deakins, Oscar nominated for his cinematography in Fargo and the Shawshank Redemption, to set the somber stage for the film. Deakins’ clips of the soldier’s dialogue while huddled in caves and roadside encounters, enhanced by a somber musical score provided by Mark Isham, capture the desolation, chaos and darkness of the war.

While Crash may have garnered criticism for its portrayal of racial politics in America, Haggis’ In the Valley of Elah should be immune from similar judgments. Notwithstanding its Biblical title, Haggis’ moral and political message is a lot more subtle and with the abundance of truth about the consequences of post traumatic stress disorder, undeniably uncontroversial.