In the Valley of Elah is a dark story about the psychological damage of war, certainly not a recipe for an entertaining night at the movies. This blogger will cop to finding it difficult to work up the enthusiasm to sit down for a movie on such a troubling topic, fearing the resultant depression (despite my love and respect for cinema as an art form, and staunch sympathy for the anti-war movement, sometimes a person just needs a little light entertainment). But writer/director Paul Haggis structured the plot as a murder mystery, with a few pinches of wry humor, to craft an excellent film that is not punishingly sad.
Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones) is a pious, patriotic, and disciplined man. But he is also emotionally detached; he dispassionately investigates the mysterious death of his own son. Drawing upon his skills as both a former army soldier and police sergeant, he outwits both the army’s own investigators and the resident local police smartypants Det. Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron). Impressively for an old coot, he is even able to locate a back-alley cell phone phreaker, in an unfamiliar town, using only a diner’s phone book. But the seemingly cold man does reveal his pain and weakness before the end, and even a buried unsavory side involving racism.
The title derives from the Biblical parable of David and Goliath, a macho mano-a-manu beatdown that occurred during the battle of the Israelites vs. the Palestinians. Aside from the obvious parallels to the locale and participants of the ancient and never-ending Middle East conflicts, the tale is also a metaphor for how Deerfield views manhood and how he raised his son: to stand tall against any odds. But as Deerfield learns unpleasant truths about his son (drugs, torture, prostitutes) and his country (unjustified war, institutional corruption), he must, late in life, come to reevaluate his most core beliefs. So what makes this clearly liberal anti-war film special is its respect for exactly the type of person it might indict: the god-fearing patriot.
Finally, I’d like to highlight one excellent scene (in every way: writing, acting, and directing): as Deerfield phones his wife Joan (Susan Sarandon) to tell her their son is dead, the scene begins in the middle, and in the end the camera pulls back to show Joan has torn apart the room. A lesser film would have shown the whole thing, for the sake of melodrama.