In the Valley of Elah
In the Valley of Elah is not a war film, though at times it looks like one. In the Valley of Elah is not a murder mystery, though at times it sounds like one. In the Valley of Elah is a national requiem, a tortured dirge for the loss of American innocence and humanity, an anguished lament that we are destroying all that is pure and good and best in ourselves. And it is a film that you owe it to yourself and your country to endure.
Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones) is a Vietnam veteran and retired Army sergeant who now makes a living hauling gravel. One day he gets a call that his son, Mike (Jonathan Tucker), who has just returned from a tour of duty in Iraq without informing his parents, has gone missing. A former military investigator with a keen insight into military bureaucracy, Hank drives to his son’s base in New Mexico to interview his son’s platoon mates. They are kind, but not forthcoming and Hank finds brick walls thrown up wherever he turns.
His pleas to the local police department fall entirely on apathetic ears except for Detective Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron), whom Hank cajoles into helping him. As they begin to sleuth around, Hank learns that Mike may not have been the recruiting poster soldier everyone thought he was. The more Hank discovers, the more the military wants to sweep under the rug. But when the charred remains of Mike’s body are found on a desert road, it is only a matter of time until the truth comes out — even if that truth reveals that there is no boogieman, just more victims.
Jones gives a powerhouse performance of emotional minimalism. Hank cannot allow his emotions to cloud his judgment. But we know exactly how he feels. We see his pain manifested in the emotional collapse of his wife (Susan Sarandon), but more than that, we see it in every line on his tightly etched face, in every glint of his wounded eyes, hear it in every deep swallow or exhalation of breath. Like almost every character in this film, Hank is cracked, barely holding on, only moments away from implosion. More zombie than man, Jones plays Hank with exquisite subtlety.
In the Valley of Elah, which derives its title from the Biblical story of David and Goliath, is the first film writer/director Paul Haggis has helmed since his Oscar-winning Crash. Based on a true story, In the Valley of Elah, like Tommy Lee Jones’ performance, is tense and meditative. It is not rushed or hurried. It is paced with a deliberate, methodical tempo, uninterested in commercial splash. It seduces us into concern for a solitary fallen soldier and only later reveals its trepidation for all those in uniform.
Not all victims of war die in combat. Limbs are not the only things lost to roadside bombs. In the Valley of Elah struggles to find meaning in the chaos of conflict. It is interested in the shattered psyches and hearts of soldiers who must look upon even children as enemies to be eradicated with cold, callous resolve. What are our actions in Iraq doing to us? What happens when we are hurting ourselves more than the enemy? What are the lies we tell ourselves to make it through just one more day? And what is left to call human when all humanity is bled dry?
In the Valley of Elah is the first of several films (The Kingdom, Rendition, Grace is Gone, Lions for Lambs) coming out this fall directly dealing with the War on Terror and its devastating repercussions. Let’s hope Hollywood, not exactly known for its subtly, handles each of these films with the same intelligence and restraint as this one.
It is extraordinary that a film this muted could resonate with a message this strong. The final image of In the Valley of Elah lacerates to the bone. And yet, the film is not political. It does not take sides. It neither rallies behind nor contemns the war in Iraq. Instead, it simply looks at the present state of our nation’s young warriors…and weeps.