A film review by Craig J. Koban

IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH jjj

2007, R, 121 mins.

Hank Deerfield: Tommy Lee Jones / Det. Emily Sanders: Charlize Theron / Lt. Kirklander: Jason Patric / Joan Deerfield: Susan Sarandon / Mike Deerfield: Jonathan Tucker / Sgt. Camelli: James Franco

Directed by Paul Haggis / Written by Haggis and Mark Boal

The Valley of Elah that is referred to in the title of Paul Haggisí newest film is the same well known  place where the Israelites were encamped when little David fought that gigantic Goliath with a rock and a sling shot.

The story of how the ordinary man killed the giant occupies one of IN THE VALLEY OF ELAHís best given speeches, provided by Tommy Lee Jones in perhaps the finest reciting of a bedtime story in recent film history.  Of course, with the actorís quintessential stoicism and wonderfully under cranked vocal delivery filled with a stern and soft spoken power, Jones makes this Biblical story carry more gravitas than any other bedtime story that could be recited to a tyke.

Despite the strength contained in Jones' voice, I am not altogether certain how the story of the Israelite shepherd boy killing a humongous Philistine warrior relates to the story and themes of Haggisí film.  Yes, I do understand what the famous Bible narrative is saying, but I think that what Haggis is trying to say with it is wholeheartedly murky.  IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH is an anti-war film at its core, so what is Haggis' agenda with appropriating the tale of David and Goliath?  Is he trying to equate the story of David to that of Americans forces in Iraq? What modern parallels is he trying to muster? Or, is he trying to use that tale to encapsulate the story of Jonesí character, who goes into unknown enemy territory of a mental nature to uncover the truth behind his sonís murder?

If there is a drawback to IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH then it would surely be with its message.  The film is yet another in a long, long string of war films that have taken great pains to preach on one principle: War is hell and it turns decent boys into monstrous war machines without a conscience.  Clearly, on this level, Haggis is not breaking any new ground whatsoever.  Also, I think that the director overreaches at times for manipulative emotional effect.  One moment in particular is kind of teeth-grating in its implementation and would-be stirring dramatic effect.  It is the last shot of the film, which is so obviously telegraphed by a moment earlier in the story.  I saw this ending from a proverbial mile away and when the credits rolled by I was overcome by feelings that there certainly was a better and less ham-invested way of concluding this movie.

Yet, my overt criticisms end there for ELAH, which is saved by the wonderful interplay between all of the actors, Tommy Lee Jones' brilliant, Oscar-nomination worthy performance as a grieving father looking for answers, and by Haggisí refined and well paced direction.  Haggis certainly has never filmed or has written a bad film.  His resume is slowly becoming the stuff of legend.  He wrote the Oscar winning MILLION DOLLAR BABY for Clint Eastwood and also collaborated with him of FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS and LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA.  He adapted the 2001 Italian film LíĎultmo bacio into 2006's THE LAST KISS, which dived into the mindset of male vulnerability better than any recent film.  He helped re-launch the languishing James Bond franchise by co-writing CASINO ROYALE, the best Bond film perhaps since the Sean Connery era.  And, of course, he wrote and directed 2005's CRASH, winner of Best Picture that year.

Clearly, Haggis is one of the eminent talents in Hollywood, and even if IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH suffers from some decided missteps and aesthetic choices, it remains a thoughtful, touching, and melancholic drama that is less concerned with actual war and combat and more concerned with probing the damaged and nearly irreparable psyche of a father that tries to discover why his son - an Iraq War soldier - was maliciously murdered not in enemy territory, but home in small town America.  If Haggis was trying to make an anti-war film, he has missed the boat.  The message is a bit too obviously constructed and perfunctory, not to mention that I never gained insight as to whether he was saying that the Iraq War was justified or not.  He does say that the war has had a paralyzing impact on soldiers, but as to whether he thinks it's a valid effort, the results are convoluted and jumbled.

That does not completely matter, because this film is owned by the presence of Tommy Lee Jones, who gives one of his most searing, sad, and sobering performances of his career. His work here is a masterpiece of soft spoken earnestness and caged anger.  He is grief stricken by   his sonís barbaric demise (his body was burned and cut into pieces), but he gathers up all inner strength and fortitude and goes forward on a courageous quest for answers.  His character redefines guts and perseverance.  Most other fathers would have wallowed up into pity and remorse; Jonesí father saves his tears for later.  He does not have time for them - he must and will find out the truth of his sonís murder.  In a way, he becomes such a beleaguered and strong figure of authority and compulsion and only Jones can find the right pitch and tone to pull this off perfectly.  He does here.

The film is very loosely based on actual events; names and particulars have been changed.  IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH was inspired by the real story of Richard Davis, and Iraq War veteran that was murdered upon his return home in 2003.  His father, Lanny Davis, a former military police officer, mounted his own investigation into the crime.  The film uses that grievous story as a springboard for its own of Mike Deerfield, a young Iraq War soldier goes A.W.O.L..  His superiors give his father, Hank (Jones), a call to inform him of this.  At first, Hank is frustrated by the news, but he inevitably gets out of bed and decides to look into his sonís whereabouts.  His motivation is clear: He is concerned for his son and was a former military police investigator, not to mention that the military could give his son some nasty disciplinary action for him jumping ship.

Hank leaves his home and his troubled wife (Susan Sarandon, giving a strong performance in a somewhat underwritten part), and heads to Fort Rudd in New Mexico.  When he gets there he looks around the base, his sonís room...everywhere and anywhere...to get some answers.  He also tries to get the assistance of a lowly misunderstood police officer named Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron, in another stand-out performance).  Emily has her own emotional battles: she is a woman in her largely male precinct and gets no respect.  She is delegated to crimes involving animals.  When she encounters Hank at first she is immediately cold.  However, when a mutilated corpse is turned up and is revealed to be Hankís son, both Hank and Emily band together in an effort to combat the lack of assistance by the military police (that is headed by Lt. Kirklander, played by the very decent Jason Patrick) in order to get some answers.

When IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH focuses on the murder investigation, it is a strong and compelling who-dunnit.  The fascinating dynamic is primarily the relationship arc between Theron and Jonesí characters.  Both reflect each otherís own despair: She desperately wants occupational respect and to be a woman with a voice and he also desperately needs to be taken seriously while investigating his sonís murder. T he best moments of the film involve Hank pilfering through his sonís belongings, slowly but surely gathering clues - no matter how mundane - to piece together the crime.  He stumbles upon letters, his sonís Bible,  and - most crucially - his sonís cell phone with some damaged video files on it.  Luckily - and perhaps a bit too conveniently - Hanks secures some assistance from a local tech head who repairs the files for Hank to see.  When he does view them, he is shocked by the depravity of the war his son was involved in.

Again, IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH lacks authority while dealing with the hellish nature of combat and its effects on man.  Itís not that the message offends, nor is it not an important one to be had.  Itís just a matter of saturation:  Iíve seen this too many times before, and done better.  Yet, the film captivates and enthralls more from the smaller police procedural narrative and from the wonderfully introspective performances by Jones and Theron.  Jones, as mentioned, is note perfect with his role as Hank and Theron also generates considerable empathy with the plight of her character.  Certainly, she is as world weary and troubled as Jonesí father.  The two play so intuitively off of one another and command such effortless chemistry from the smallest of moments.  Sarandon - in an abbreviated role - captures her charactersí anguish in a heartbreaking scene over the phone, and Jason Patrick perhaps has the slyest and trickiest part of the film playing a military cop that is neither an antagonist or a protagonist.

I did not like IN THE VALLEY OF ELAHíS overwrought and hammered down handling of its themes and messages, nor did it provide any real insight into the directorís mind set about the Iraq War.  The film is a bit schizophrenic at times with its bipartisan politics - it seems to condemn war as much as pay respect to those that fight for its cause.  The film has just too much grand-standing for its own good, not to mention that it seems to go through the motions with its themes.  But the real reason to see the film is for Haggisí handling of the characters and the crime mystery within the "war-is-hell" film shell.  And Tommy Lee Jones is so masterful playing his role as if his wounded eyes where the windows to a thousand stories of pain and suffering.  If Haggis reigned himself in a bit and was secured more solidly into the police investigation plot- and cut out that silly final shot - then IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH could have been one of the best films of the year.  Nevertheless, if you forgive the filmís pontificating and drink in the powerful performances, then it still emerges as a highly effective and emotionally charged drama.

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