In the Valley of Elah (United States, 2007)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The last scene of In the Valley of Elah may be the most ridiculously ham-fisted and over-the-top moment in all of 2007’s supposed prestige cinema. This image is so blatant and cheesy that it makes one wonder whether director Paul Haggis’ success with Crash was some kind of fluke. In fact, the film as a whole raises that question. Crash was not the most subtle film, but its clever structure and finely tuned character moments camouflaged many of its weaknesses. The same cannot be said of In the Valley of Elah, which takes two hours to make an oh-so-obvious point: war dehumanizes human beings. Is there anyone alive over the age of 12 who doesn’t know that?

The majority of the film is a plodding police procedural. In the Valley of Elah is not without its moments. When it’s a meditation on loss, it works. When it’s a half-baked chronology of a criminal investigation, it seems like an episode of N.Y.P.D Blue. Unfortunately, Haggis’ screenplay gives more weight to the latter elements. It’s not just that the investigation isn’t interesting but that it unfolds in such an unrealistic manner that we’re left shaking out heads. Consider, for example, that despite his snappish attitude and Texas accent, Tommy Lee Jones is pretty much playing Sherlock Holmes.

When Mike Deerfield, a soldier just back from Iraq, goes AWOL, his superiors pay a courtesy call to his dad, retired officer Hank Deerfield (Jones). They warn him that if Mike isn’t back on base in a few days, he will be reported as missing. This sends Hank, an ex-military cop, into search-and-discover mode. He jumps in his car, leaving behind a worrying wife (Susan Sarandon), and heads for Fort Rudd in New Mexico. Once there, he spends some time poking around on the base then tries to liaise with an overworked non-military cop, Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron). Then the charred pieces of a hacked-up corpse are identified as belonging to Mike, and Hank must shuffle through his son’s past to uncover how the culture of soldiers in Iraq led to Mike’s untimely death.

The effective scenes in In the Valley of Elah are the character-based ones - the quiet instances when fine actors like Tommy Lee Jones, Charlize Theron, and Susan Sarandon are allowed to perform. Jones, for example, is a perfect picture of barely contained grief as he channels all of his efforts into determining who killed his son and why. Theron’s scenes with Emily’s son represent her strongest moments. The movie becomes laborious and, eventually, hard to swallow when it delves into the investigation. And it’s a huge disappointment that the point of these two hours is to inform us that men and women who go away to war often see such horrible things that life no longer has the same meaning. I can name at least a dozen films that have presented the same theme a lot more effectively.

Like another of the fall's so-called anti-war "message movies," Rendition, this production is so overtly one-sided and political that it makes it points stridently and with a lack of elegance. There’s a difference between a movie with a political point of view and a movie that exists as a sermon for a position; In the Valley of Elah feels more like the latter than the former. I’m not offended by Haggis’ message because I think there’s merit to it. But the ungainly manner in which it is presented doesn't do the cause any good.

The film’s title comes from the location of the Biblical struggle between David and Goliath, and could be symbolic of a number of things. But, like a lot of other elements in this movie, using “The Valley of Elah” as a symbol is a jumbled association. The more one thinks about it, the less sense it makes. Less consideration is necessary to make the same deduction about the movie as a whole.

In the Valley of Elah (United States, 2007)

Director: Paul Haggis
Cast: Tommy Lee Jones, Charlize Theron, Jason Patric, Susan Sarandon, James Franco, Barry Corbin, Josh Brolin
Screenplay: Paul Haggis
Cinematography: Roger Deakins
Music: Mark Isham
U.S. Distributor: Warner Brothers
Run Time: 2:04
U.S. Release Date: 2007-09-14
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Situations, Nudity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1