Published on June 17th, 2008 | by Chris0
In The Valley of Elah (2007)
As we learn in the film, in the Biblical parlance, the Valley of Elah is where the infamous battle between David and Goliath took place. I'm not exactly sure what the relevance of that to the movie, In The Valley of Elah is, except maybe in reference to the main character, Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones)
But maybe I'm getting ahead of myself here. Elah follows Deerfield as he searches for his son, Mike Deerfield, who has gone AWOL after returning from a tour in Iraq. The search turns into a murder mystery, as we discover his horribly mutilated remains in a field. Helping with the investigation is the mediocre rural detective Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron.)
War Movie? No. Classify this under murder/detective mystery more than anything. However, I think that the folks who made the movie intended for this to be some kind of statement. *That* little effort, in my not so humble opinion, falls flat on its face. Seen purely in that light, it goes from one extreme to the other and then back again. From 'honor our troops!' to 'the US is wrong' to 'war is hell' to 'our soldiers are animals' and then falls somewhere in the "unfavorable" light as we end the film with Deerfield hanging the flag his son sent him upside down as a signal of distress. Whether that's supposed to be Deerfield's or all of us collectively I'm not sure.
It's also unclear to me how the now deceased Deerfield's unfortunate events ultimately play into his death, and the plot in general. Not to spoil it, but he accidentally does something that he can't live with, and it just doesn't line up with the manner or circumstances of his death. Is the moral of the story "shit happens?" I really don't know.
Anyway. If you take all of that aside, go ahead, toss it out the window... You really end up with a good movie. A good detective story anyway. And as far as detective stories go it is pretty predictable.
The final thing which makes Elah what it is is Tommy Lee Jones' performance, and how we witness his character go from straight-laced, (and still "living the life" so-to-speak) into a dark world of chaos. He starts off parking his polished shoes by his neatly tucked-and-folded bed, to a sloppy, sleeping til noon mess as he unravels the mystery of what happened to his son. Really, that's whats at the core of the story. I'll throw in a big nod to Susan Sarandon playing the would-be-stoic army wife and mother. Her brief yet powerful performance is equally moving as Jones'. But, if Theron's goal was to play a not-so-bright but dedicated cop with no personality, then I think she nailed it dead on.
So, take all the proposed rhetoric about Iraq out of The Valley of Elah, and its a really solid piece. But to put it all in there is just confusing and at best a plot device that we just didn't need. The entire stream of 'decoded' cell phone videos just serve to muddle the picture, providing few clues really except to finally show that Mike's buddies were a bunch of sadistic animals. I just don't get the motive there.
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Summary: take all the proposed rhetoric about Iraq out of The Valley of Elah, and its a really solid piece. But to put it all in there is just confusing and at best a plot device that we just didn't need. The entire stream of 'decoded' cell phone videos just serve to muddle the picture