In The Valley Of Elah Review

In The Valley Of Elah, based on a true story, begins with a personal crisis and ends with a national one. Hank Deerfield (Jones) receives a confusing phone call from his son Mike who has just returned from serving an 18 month tour in Iraq. Soon he is informed that Mike has gone AWOL from his base and he is not entirely surprise when Mike’s burned corpse turns up in the desert. Upon investigating, Hank, helped by a policewoman Sanders (Theron), comes upon a confusing trail of evidence including video clips and photographs. Ultimately, his quest to discover the truth takes him to the heart of the war in Iraq and a military cover-up.

Immediately, the most obvious comparison is to Costa-Gavras’s excellent 1981 film Missing. Both films trace a narrative arc from the personal to the national. Both examine subterfuge by the people who are meant to protect our liberties. Most significantly, both films give centre stage to a fiercely patriotic, even right-wing, American who is forced, through his dealings with duplicitous representatives of the state, to reconsider his personal and political values. The difference between the two films is equally significant however. Missing, a critical and commercial hit, was made eight years after the Chilean coup and deals with issues which were familiar to an American public who were less than shocked at the idea that the CIA might be up to no good in Central America. In The Valley Of Elah, which came and went in the blink of an eye, concerns itself with events in Iraq, a situation which is still potent and, as of June 2008, ongoing. It also implicates the military in illegal activities both home and abroad. It may be that the lack of the cushioning of time made it too uncomfortable for viewers. To many, it may also have seemed unpatriotic, even though the film takes pains to avoid moralising about the soldiers in Iraq and, indeed, has a fierce sympathy with what they have to go through. Paul Haggis’ sights are firmly set on the government which sent them there in the first place – Haggis is quite happy to be identified as both anti-War and anti-Bush.

Much was made towards the end of last year about a wave of films about the Iraq war. Although I think In The Valley Of Elah deserves to stand alone and is about more than just the war, it’s probably the best of the lot and certainly, at least up until the last twenty minutes, the most subtle – even though subtlety is the last thing you’d expect from the director of Crash. Nick Broomfield’s Battle For Haditha is concise and chilling and Brian De Palma’s Redacted is admirably ferocious, but neither are as emotionally affecting as Haggis’ film. I think that’s because it has such a strong central figure in the shape of Tommy Lee Jones, an actor who just keeps getting better and better. After a few lean years struggling in dead-end projects like MIB2 and U.S. Marshals, Jones suddenly found himself again in The Missing and his performance there as a weary old scout seems to have revived his interest in acting. His own project, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada was probably the the best film of 2005. Now, in the Coen Brothers’ No Country For Old Men and here, Jones is doing the best work of his career. It’s very quiet acting and some have mistaken it for repetition of what’s gone before. But Jones has developed a core of steel which is used here to signal a fierce ethical determination to see, if not justice, at least things done right. His face is drawn and pitted with sadness and experience but his gaze is sharp and unblinking. He expects the best from people and when he is let down, his moral indignation is unflinching. But what makes the performance so unforgettable is that he manages to convey the cost of what he discovers, namely a broken heart.

Tommy Lee Jones is the backbone of the film and it’s unthinkable without him. But he’s backed up by a blazing turn from Charlize Theron as the tenacious police investigator who is used to battling corruption and spends her time being patronised by her male colleagues who ensure she gets to do all the important jobs like collecting stray dogs. Theron is very good at suggesting intellectual bravery and works beautifully with Jones. There’s also excellent work from a subdued Susan Sarandon, Frances Fisher and two veterans of No Country For Old Men - Josh Brolin and Barry Corbin. It’s no surprise that Haggis works well with actors but what’s particularly impressive is the quality of work he gets from unpromising cast members such as Jason Patric and James Franco.

Paul Haggis has demonstrably improved as a director since Crash and is more willing to use visuals to move the story forward rather than relying on a didactic screenplay. In this, he is helped immeasurably by the cinematography skills of Roger Deakins, the man who can justly lay claim to being one of the most significant figures of 2007’s movies having also worked his magic on The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford and No Country For Old Men. His skill almost transcends description but the images in these films are intensely felt, drawing the viewer into a deep emotional connection with the narrative – in other words, the passion of the images becomes a vital part of the film. Deakins drinks in the bleak majesty of the Albuquerque locations and suggesting significant visual parallels with the deserts of Iraq. I should also mention the important contributions of Mark Isham’s music score and the careful rhythms of Jo Francis’ editing.


I found In The Valley Of Elah exceptionally moving but I’m not sure why, beyond my connection with the images and the majestic central performance. Maybe it’s because I got caught up in what Haggis was trying to say about war – not just that war is bad but that it inexorably changes those who engage in it. So far so familiar but the central metaphor of the film is, I think, fairly original. The title refers to the story of David and Goliath – David being a young, callow youth sent by a king to kill a rampaging giant. Immediately, this suggests the soldiers who are sent by politicians to slaughter the enemy who is demonised by use of political propaganda and built up into something huge and terrifying – remember how George Bush Sr. used to talk about Saddam Hussein’s fearsome Elite Republican Guard? But Haggis turns the metaphor round to ask a significant question – what if the Americans are Goliath and not the courageous innocents? What does it do to a young soldier who suddenly faces such a realisation? This may not be especially profound but it’s brave and suggestive. Haggis thrashes about in moral quandaries, contrasting wartime atrocities with those committed back home and if he doesn’t always find satisfactory answers, his searching ambition is to be commended. That goes for the final shot of the film which has been subject to derision from many critics who think it both didactic and surplus to requirements. In my view, you have to see the gesture strictly from the point of view of Hank Deerfield and his deepest beliefs. For a man such as Hank, the American flag is everything and to fly it upside down, as he does, is a deeply eloquent gesture of desperation. I also think that it’s a very subversive image for a major, mainstream American film to conclude with and a deeply political one.

The Disc

Optimum’s disc of In The Valley Of Elah is distinguished by an excellent transfer and trumps the Region 1 release with the addition of a splendidly in-depth interview with Paul Haggis.

The 2.40:1 image is anamorphically enhanced. The colours are often subdued but always accurate and the fine grain looks gorgeous. There’s a fair degree of detail throughout although occasionally some of the scenes set at night are a little muddy. Artifacting is minimal throughout apart from some obvious over-enhancement in places.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack concentrates largely on the dialogue, rendering it clearly and faithfully. Music fills in the surrounds and do some ambient effects, particularly during the video clips from Iraq. Throughout, the track is crisp and pleasant to listen to.

The extra features consist of a featurette broken up into two parts, a lengthy deleted scene and the aforementioned interview. The featurette lasts about forty minutes in total and is excellent. Haggis comes across very well as do his cast and crew but the most fascinating comments come from men who have served in Iraq and were used as actors in this film. All of them are uncommonly honest and eloquent and they provide valuable testimony. The deleted scene lasts seven minutes and details a visit which Hank makes to a girl his son was involved with. It’s a strong scene but not entirely necessary to the plot and the decision to delete it was right, especially with the film already running at the two hour mark. My favourite extra feature was the interview which gives Haggis time to eloquently convey his thoughts. He’s a quiet speaker but a compelling one and this feature made me wish that he’d contributed a full audio commentary to the disc. Finally, the theatrical trailer is included.

In The Valley Of Elah is a long and detailed film, perhaps most attractive to fans of police procedurals. But it’s held together by intelligence and taste and the strength of the central performances. Strongly recommended, especially after its lacklustre showing at cinemas, and the DVD is a good way of catching up with it.

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Last updated: 18/04/2018 23:18:18

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