An anti-war political message movie wrapped up in a slowly unfolding mystery, Paul Haggis’s writer-director follow-up to his smash hit, Crash, In the Valley of Elah (a reference to the David and Goliath mythos) follows a grieving father on a cross-country quest to solve the puzzle of his soldier-son’s sudden disappearance.
Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones) is a quiet, taciturn Vietnam veteran who lives a quiet, hard-working life in rural Tennessee. He earns a decent living, has a loving wife (Susan Sarandon), and a son, Mike (Jonathan Tucker), who’s followed in his own self-sacrificing footsteps by enlisting in the army and fighting for America’s freedom in the Middle East.
But Hank’s steady life is turned upside down when Mike is reported AWOL just when he was about to return from a tough tour of duty in Iraq. Not one to sit idly by, Hank drives to Fort Rudd in New Mexico, where he questions his son’s platoon pals and allies himself with the detective on the case, smart but vulnerable Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron). Begging, borrowing and stealing are all in Hank’s arsenal, and before long (well, okay, it seems like a long time–In the Valley of Elah is hardly an action-adventure flick), he uncovers the ugly truth behind Mike’s unexpected departure.
Not nearly as heavy-handed, glib or self-aware as Crash (even though that is a movie I really actually enjoyed, in spite of the way I just described it!), In the Valley of Elah may be an “unexpected departure” for Paul Haggis fans. This movie feels more like something a Sominex-soused Terrence Malick might have directed. No doubt it’s intelligent, absorbing, and exceedingly well-acted, but is perhaps too terse, reflective and minimalistic for the big screen experience.
This is the kind of movie most will want to absorb in the quiet and comfort of home… but in any setting, it’s well worth a look (and if you have a chance, read the Playboy article upon which it is based: “Death and Dishonor,” by Mark Boal).
Warner Independent Pictures' 'In The Valley of Elah' is in limited theatrical release from September 14, 2007.