In the Valley of Elah is a hand-wringing drama disguised as a
police procedural. Tommy Lee Jones plays a retired military investigator
whose son has disappeared shortly after returning from his own Army tour of
duty in Iraq. Tommy Lee knows enough about his son to know that he's not the
kind of guy to desert or go AWOL, so he becomes determined to get to the
bottom of the situation. He drives to the base and stars asking questions, but
gets very little co-operation from either the military or civilian authorities
in the area.
It is only a matter of a day or so before he finds out that his son's body
has been found in an open field, stabbed 42 times, burned beyond recognition,
and devoured by wild animals. Although he is overwhelmed by grief, he is
determined to follow the investigation through to the end. He gets no
co-operation from the military, but catches a break when a diligent civilian
cop (Charlize Theron) assumes control of the case when she determines that the
murder happened away from military jurisdiction. Theron and Tommy Lee follow
the case through a trail of lies and red herrings until they peel away every
layer and expose the real story.
The film was written and directed by Paul Haggis, who has won two Oscars
and has been nominated for three others. Haggis has been nominated for Oscars for three different films, as a
director, as the producer of Crash, and as a writer, so this film comes with
an impeccable pedigree, and it has several strengths:
1. Tommy Lee Jones turns in a poignant, grief-laden performance as the
taciturn father. Although it's a one-note tune, he plays that tune effectively
and he's on screen just about every minute. He earned his Oscar nomination as
2. The story is complex enough and interesting enough to sustain viewer
interest over a long running time (124 minutes). The drama alone might weigh
too heavily for such an extended length, but the film's mystery overlay keeps
the action intriguing.
It also has some glaring weaknesses:
1. It is consistently guilty of "piling on" tragedy after tragedy in an
exploitative way. Don't you think a father's grief over his utterly mutilated
son would be enough to build to emotional crescendo, especially when the
father finds out that his son is very different from what he believed him to
be? Not for this script. The author gives Tommy Lee another son who also died
in military action, and forces poor ol' Tommy to deal with his doubly-grieving wife
at the same time. She, of course, blames Tommy's military pride for having
caused both of her sons to lose their lives.
Every character in the film has a similarly onerous tragedy. You get to the point where
you long to meet a person whose life wasn't plotted out by the writers of
2. The film's presentation of America's involvement in Iraq is strident and
one-dimensional, and follows the same path as the rest of the movie in
layering tragedy on top of tragedy in a simplistic manner, without balance or
perspective. It deals with generic situations that happen in every war and
somehow leaps to the conclusion that those can be extrapolated to America's
current situation. The ending of the film is just ridiculous and cheesy
grandstanding, totally lacking in both artfulness and subtlety.
In both of those matters the film is so full of Henny-Penny dialogue ("the
sky is falling") as to make Ron Paul seem calm and thoughtful.