In the Valley of Elah (Haggis, 2007)

While reviewing In the Valley of Elah on Ebert and Roeper At the Movies, Village Voice Media critic Robert Wilonsky reasoned he didn’t care for Paul Haggis’ film because it didn’t reveal anything new about the “soldier returning home” scenario. Maybe so, but since global powers continue to push soldiers into unjust, immoral war time situations and these men return home to consistent heartache, breaking minds, and guilt, doesn’t that make this “tired” scenario more important than ever? If In the Valley of Elah reminds of films like The Best Years of Our Lives and Coming Home in psychology and situation, it makes the film damn important indeed, especially considering how well it’s made. Haggis got his equal share of praise and flack for his last film, the Oscar winning film Crash (which I still find interesting), but where that story revolves around a convoluted mosaic, In the Valley of Elah sticks closely to one gruesome and destructive police procedural. The case involves Mike Deerfield (Jonathan Tucker), a missing soldier just home from a tour in Iraq, whose Vietnam veteran father Hank (the brilliant Tommy Lee Jones) comes to investigate his disappearance. Aided by Det. Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron), Hank pieces together a troubling chain of events surrounding his missing son and a group of soldiers from his unit. Haggis pays close attention to the ineptitude of the Military Police and local law enforcement when faced with jurisdictional conflicts, both getting showed up by Hank (he used to be an MP) often and without remorse. Slowly, and with disturbing effect, Haggis reveals clues to Mike’s case through the use of cell phone video footage taken in Iraq, painting a picture Hank never wanted to see. While the material does feel familiar, the film produces a freshness surrounding the advent of media to capture moments and events often sequestered by the military. Haggis also avoids much of the preaching and sap which many found acidic in Crash, using the stoic and chiseled face of Jones as an emissary of pain and redemption through silent close-ups while on the phone with his wife Joan (Susan Sarandon), resulting in the best scenes of the film. But this is a father/son story, one drenched in haunting regret and sadness, Hank fighting the guilt and honor of a man who’s lost both of his son’s to war. Hank’s journey is a personal reckoning and In the Valley of Elah a requiem on the consequences of a country immersed in war, a nest of stinging failures felt both at home and abroad. Tragically familiar material.

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