In the Valley of Elah is the second film I’ve seen recently that addresses the condition of soldiers returning from the Iraq war. Unlike Home of the Brave, however, Elah is actually a strong film with impressive performances and a story that hooks you and holds on to the end. It’s a Paul Haggis production – the two-time Oscar winner wrote, directed and produced the film – so Elah has some serious cred right off the bat, thanks to the success of other Haggis projects. Maybe you’ve heard of Crash, best picture winner of 2004, Million Dollar Baby or Letters From Iwo Jima?
Those credits aside, In the Valley of Elah’s best feature is a masterful performance by Tommy Lee Jones (No Country for Old Men), who’s up for a best actor Oscar for his portrayal of an old-school army veteran searching for his son.
Jones is Hank Deerfield, a retired military cop investigating the disappearance of his soldier son, Mike. Mike just returned from a tour in Iraq, but he’s AWOL and Hank is determined to find him. Charlize Theron (Monster) is a detective in the town near Mike’s base. When the two end up cooperating on the investigation of Mike’s disappearance, they encounter resistance and suspicious activity from the army and Mike’s fellow soldiers. Early on, Hank gets a hold of his son’s camera phone, revealing sporadic bits and pieces of video footage from Mike’s time in Iraq, fueling Hank’s investigation and keeping us intrigued until the end.
It’s an emotional film, and Jones does a remarkable job capturing unbelievable pain, disappointment and anger in subtle but powerful way. On a personal level, Jones’ portrayal makes you feel everything Hank feels. On a broader level, the veteran actor’s craggy features are a perfect living symbol for a country torn apart by
On one hand, In the Valley of Elah is a riveting murder-mystery. On the other, it’s an exploration of the effects of war on those who make it back home. The former is much more overt than the latter, which is what makes the whole thing work. Where the highly inferior Home of the Brave beats its audience over the head with statements about the repercussions of sending our men and women to fight overseas, Elah just tells a good story and lets viewers deduce any statements on their own – at least for the most part. The film also addresses how things have changed in America, as Hank’s personal journey leads him to confront a military and patriotism very different from his own experience, bringing him to realize that the country he loves is in trouble. These are controversial themes, to be sure, but given popular sentiment about the Iraq war, I think Haggis’ film will have majority support.
In the Valley of Elah is presented on a single disc, in 2.35:1 widescreen format, preserving the aspect ratio of its original theatrical version. It looks very good, showing off Roger Deakins’ exceptional cinematography with a clean transfer chock full of detail. Deakins is up for not one but two cinematography Oscars this year, for his work on No Country For Old Men and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. While Elah is not on the same level as those two critically acclaimed films, it has its share of muted beauty. Oh, and you can also spend the whole film trying to count the wrinkles on Tommy Lee Jones’ face, which is presented in all its weathered glory.
The main audio presentation is Dolby Digital 5.1, but don’t expect any shock and awe from Elah. Just as Jones’ performance is subtle and nuanced, so is the film’s surround mix. It’s mostly quiet, with a few burst of action, and dialogue and ambient effects take precedence. Everything sounds perfectly clear, and there are no issues with the overall balance.
In the Valley of Elah is more David than Goliath in the bonus materials department, with just two extras to explore. The first is a two-part, 40-minute behind-the-scenes featurette, which shies away from the typical making-of fluff in favour of more interesting material, including some surprisingly insightful interviews with the cast and crew. Following that, there’s a 7-minute deleted sequence in which Hank discovers his son had a girlfriend, tracks her down and hears a troublesome story. It’s interesting, but definitely didn’t belong in the finished film.
Whether or not you agree with Crash upsetting Brokeback Mountain for 2004 best picture, there’s no denying Paul Haggis is on a roll. In the Valley of Elah is a welcome addition to my DVD collection, and I look forward to Haggis’ next project, Quantum of Solace, the new James Bond film he’s co-writing.