Tommy Lee Jones Is Unforgettable in a Haunting Anti-War Film
Written and directed by Paul Haggis, In the Valley of Elah (2007) is a compassionate tale centering on war's dehumanizing effect on young soldiers. The story is inspired by real-life events that took place at Fort Benning, Georgia, in 2003, although the movie transposes the setting to the fictional Fort Rudd, New Mexico, in 2004. But what makes the film so poignant is the extraordinary performance by Tommy Lee Jones as a father trying to find out what happened to his son.
Although the movie is a showcase for Jones, there are other good performances as well. The film's female lead is Charlize Theron, and she is excellent as a police detective. In a small, but important role, Susan Sarandon portrays Jones' character's wife. Well-known actors who make significant contributions in minor roles include Josh Brolin as a police chief and Frances Fisher as a topless bartender. And newcomer Wes Chatham stands out as one of the young soldiers.
For most of its two-hour runtime, In the Valley of Elah plays like a police procedural. But Haggis' theme is the psychological devastation the Iraq War has wrought on American soldiers, and he is sometimes heavy-handed. Still, Haggis' skill at sustaining a somber tone and the development of the intriguing character portrayed by Tommy Lee Jones make this a powerful film for the receptive viewer. However, to get fully caught up in this deliberately paced movie, you must be willing to look past its flaws.
A Crusty Old Military Man Makes Some Unpleasant Discoveries
In the movie, Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones) is a retired Army sergeant who lives in a small Tennessee town, where he hauls gravel for a living. A Vietnam veteran, he's proud that his son Mike is serving his country as an infantryman in Iraq. But one day Hank gets a telephone call telling him that Mike's unit is back at Fort Rudd, New Mexico, and Mike has gone missing. Hank immediately drives out there to find out what's going on, and although the Army personnel treat the old-timer with great politeness, they stonewall him. However, Hank meets Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron), a sympathetic police detective in the town just outside Fort Rudd's main entrance, and she helps him get to the bottom of things.
Hank and Emily gradually unravel the mystery of what happened to Mike, and that gives the story narrative drive. But the film's emotional punch comes from watching how Hank changes along the way. He starts out thinking he knows his son and understands the Army, but he slowly realizes he is out of touch with 21st-century realities. Jones' craggy face captures the despair growing inside Hank as he learns more and more about the repugnant behavior of Mike and his war buddies. Still, it is to Hank's credit that although what he discovers profoundly saddens him, it does not break his spirit.
The title In the Valley of Elah refers to the place where, according to I Samuel 17, David went up against Goliath. But the relationship of the Bible story to the film is elliptical.
A Making-Of Documentary and an Additional Scene
There's a 43-minute making-of documentary on the DVD that enhances the experience of having watched the feature film. The real-life events on which the movie is loosely based concern what happened to Richard Davis at Fort Benning, Georgia, and the making-of contains compelling interviews with his parents, Lanny and Remy Davis. Also, various people talk about posttraumatic stress disorder. In addition, we learn the Fort Rudd scenes were shot in and around Albuquerque, while the Iraq scenes were shot in Morocco.
The DVD also contains an eight-minute sequence not included in the final film. This involves a plot thread where Hank visits a girl Mike had dated. Her name happens to be Jennifer Lopez, and she also served in Iraq. An improvised explosive device cost Jennifer one of her legs and one of her arms, and Hank is shocked when she speaks of the cruel way his son treated her. The look on Jones' face here is heartbreaking, but Haggis was right to exclude this material because it doesn't add enough to the overall movie to justify the time spent on it.
Listed below are the details for the DVD containing In the Valley of Elah.
Release Date: February 19, 2008
Feature Film Runtime: 2 hours 1 minute
MPAA Rating: R for Violent and Disturbing Content, Language and Some Sexuality/Nudity
Widescreen (2.35:1), Color
English 5.1 Dolby Surround
French 5.1 Dolby Surround
Spanish 5.1 Dolby Surround
English Captions for the Hearing Impaired
Making-Of Documentary (43 minutes)
Additional Scene (8 minutes)