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In the Valley of Elah (2007) ****

September 14, 2007

written by: Paul Haggis (screenplay) & Mark Boal (from article: Death and Dishonor)
produced by: Larry Becsey, Paul Haggis, Darlene Caamano Loquest, Steve Samuels & Patrick Wachsberger
directed by: Paul Haggis
R for violent and disturbing content, language and some sexuality/nudity.
2 hrs.
U.S. release date: Sept, 28, 2007
DVD & Bluray release date: February 19, 2008
Recently, I attended a free screening of a movie that will resonate with me for some time and I’m sure will be the cause of controversy for some viewers once it’s released. That’s no surprise considering writer/director Paul Haggis is best known for his 2005 Best Picture winner “Crash” which was a controversial film and win. I liked that movie well enough and felt it deserved the win but I know that some critics and moviegoers felt that Haggis’ themes were a lil ham-handed or forced upon them. I can understand all that and I was okay with those claims cuz overall the film’s performances ascended any of my gripes. This film has less gripe and more praise from yours truly.
Retired career military police officer Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones), receives a call in his Tennessee home from Fort Rudd in New Mexico. He sits on his bed, tired yet attentive to the information he’s given: his son Mike has gone AWOL. At first, Hank cannot understand this seeing as his son is still in Iraq serving in the army. He’s told Mike has been back from Iraq but has recently turned up missing. Hank knows he’s gonna have to look into this on his own as he leaves a message on Mike’s cell asking him to call. His wife Joan (Susan Sarandon) quietly observes as he packs a suitcase for his trip along with a picture of Mike in military dress. She asks Hank if there’s anything she should know about with that demeanor of a mother/wife who has seen all the men in her family serve their country. He tells her not to worry and that it’d be best if he look into this first but assures her that he will find their son.
On the way out of town, Hank parks his pick-up at a nearby school where he sees an alarming site. The U.S. flag is flying upside down on the school’s flagpole. He assists the school’s groundskeeper in both setting the flag right-side up and educating him on what an upside down flag represents. It’s quiet scenes like this that develop the character of Hank as well as the overall tone throughout the film. Upon arriving at the base, Hank is shown around by Sgt. Carnelli (James Franco) and introduced to Mike’s army buddies, all polite yet none of which have any idea where their fellow soldier is. Since the military police seem to be preoccupied, he takes his missing person report to the local police where Det. Sanders (Charlize Theron) automatically refers him back to the military base. Unfortunately, the often seen stereotypical  “take care of their own” mentality comes to play between the police and the military.
Tommy Lee Jones in Warner Independent Pictures' In the Valley of Elah 
Hank starts his own investigation, using the combined concern of a father paired with his investigative intuition from the service. He manages to swipe his son’s camera phone from his quarters and finds a local street hacker, who decodes all calls as well as the picture and video files and sends them along, one by one. Hank sits alone in his motel room and watches the choppy, shakey replays of Mike’s missions in Iraq and we study each frame with him hoping to learn the truth of what went on, and how, if at all, it might explain what has happen to Mike (Jonathan Tucker). He reports to his wife each night as he checks various restaurants and nightclubs frequented by local soldiers. All the while, Hank remembers a desperate call he received from his son in Iraq, asking to come home.
These scenes are told with such precision by cinematographer Roger Deakons and lamenting strings if composer Mark Isham. There’s nothing overstated about this movie let alone over-acted. All the acting is excellent with Tommy Lee Jones giving what I consider one of his best performances in quite a while. Some of his best work here is how he conveys such emotion without expressing it. He’s always had quite a distinctive face what with his rather large ears and nose as well as those squinty, baggy eyes of his but in this role he uses it all to the benefit of the character and the story. The few scenes that Sarandon has with and without Jones are pretty powerful. She really takes some emotional scenes and knocks then outta the park. Theron holds her own quite well and a lot of it has to do with the well-written material she’s been given. Jason Patric also has somewhat of a complicated small role as a reluctant, by-the-book lieutenant overseeing the investigation.
Charlize Theron and Tommy Lee Jones in Warner Independent Pictures' In the Valley of Elah 
I could go into the rest of the movie’s plot but I’m gonna choose not to as I feel the trailer tells enough already. I’m not gonna go into the details of why Det. Sanders decides to investigate and help Hank get to the truth of his missing son’s whereabouts or what her own motives could be. Soon all that will be revealed in various interviews, articles and reviews. The controversy of the film will be over the last hour of the film and that’s unfortunate. Instead of watching the layers of an investigation slowly unpeel, some viewers may take offense at how soldiers who have returned home are portrayed. That’s too bad because movies about combat PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) have been around since Vietnam. There’s no getting around it, if a young man or woman is living such a high-adrenalized life for months (for some years) 24/7 they are going to be effected once they return back home. Movies like “Coming Home” and “The Deer Hunter” have captured elements of this and as long as there’s war there will be stories like these to tell.
It’s unclear whether or not the film can be considered an “anti-war” movie, as it will most likely be labeled. That’s mostly due to Hank’s tight demeanor of a patriot who is not in any way questioning ”the troops”, in fact, he doesn’t even have it in him to do so.  I think he has a hard enough time learning some hard truths about who his and what kind of relationship he had with him. As he proceeds with his investigation, he can’t help but to ask himself ask: What is what we’re doing in Iraq doing to us? Sure, there is one final scene that is a blatant message and statement of the current war but it’s not like it’s necessarily outta character. I could’ve done without it, in fact I woulda given the film three and a half stars because of it but the performances here warranted I bump it up a notch to four. Still, I understand why Haggis put it in there and it may even have been needed. I really hope this message can be taken for what it is and leave it open for discussion.
“In the Vallety of Elah” is Haggis’ follow up as writer/director and it’s another well-told story about relevant themes. I can only hope that this incredibly moving film can be taken just for what it is. Still, I see some critics are already skeptic as soon as they see who directed this and that’s a shame. For those who are passionate about stories based on actual events, this is a film for you. The story is based on an article written by Mark Boal, a contributing writer for Rolling Stone and Playboy magazines. I don’t know if that article had the same title as this film or how close this film follows that article but regardless it’s essential a harrowing look at the psychological state of the young soldiers returning from Iraq….hence the controversy. Anything involving the current war can be a hot topic, sure to be scrutinized, but there is more going on here besides any critique of politics and the war. It’s just simply a father trying to find out what happened to his son.




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