In the Valley of Elah
Academy favorite Paul Haggis wows with his directorial follow-up to Best Picture winner Crash. In the Valley of Elah will affect you.
In the Valley of Elah's name comes from the Biblical story of David and Goliath; it's the place where David slew the giant, as so sets in motion our movie. Based on Mark Boal's Playboy magazine article, in which three enlisted Army soldiers were accused of murdering a platoon mate on a Georgia military base, Elah comments on the desensitization to violence that American soldiers experience in the Iraq War. The "Goliath" of Elah is the insurmountable odds of beating the lingering trauma when and if they return. Tommy Lee Jones plays Hank Deerfield, a former military MP who has encouraged his youngest son, Mike (Jonathan Bennett), to go to battle, even though Jones' older son has already died in war. Mike is reported AWOL during a trip to the States, and soon his dead body turns up burned and mutilated in a field near the base. A devastated Jones goes hunting for answers while assuring teary wife Joan (Susan Sarandon) that all will be OK. He enlists local police investigator Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron) for help, while U.S. military officials are stubborn to provide access. While solving his son's murder, Hank loses faith in the American institution of patriotism.
Jones could be up for his third Oscar nomination for Elah, in which he broods and seethes like a lion in a cage. His Hank rides the wave of a country's unrest for the Iraq War, which has affected thousands of American lives since it started, but does so as a strong, proud, principled man--one who is ultimately flawed by his trust in the country's prosecution in military matters. Hank loses both his sons, as wife Joan is left to grieve for the legacy her husband has created. Although it's a small role, Sarandon makes her presence known, especially in an exceptionally strong scene, grieving over the phone with Jones, as both reconcile with the pain left in their sons' wakes. Theron makes a departure from playing the lead, instead digging deep as the local cop. But ultimately, the role undermines her talents. Emily is essentially a cop on a mission, the local six-foot-tall-plus woman, who is pegged by the rural cop schlubs she works with as an easy mark around the office, as she toils with irrelevant cases. That is, until Hank shows up one day with his potboiler of a murder. This just undervalues Theron's ability to single-handedly steal a scene.
Paul Haggis, whose writing work since 2004 is among Hollywood's most prolific with credits such as Million Dollar Baby, The Aviator and Letters from Iwo Jima, is finding his way as a director. Crash was uneven but still managed to win over audiences with heart. In the Valley of Elah is once more an imperfectly directed work of art, but he's learned to present a more unified tone, from start to finish. The emotional moments where Jones and Sarandon grieve are touching and well-framed, while symbolism is allowed room to breathe. Furthermore, Haggis coaxes believable performances from real-life Iraq War veterans, who act in several crucial roles. But Elah is essentially framed as a procedural whodunit, which is almost too Law & Order-ish for a movie about the Iraq War. This could impede the movie's homerun Oscar potential.
Hollywood.com rated this film 3 1/2 stars.