Tommy Lee Jones and Charlize Theron in In the Valley of Elah (2007)


(director/writer: Paul Haggis; screenwriter: based on a story by Mark Boal; cinematographer: Roger Deakins; editor: Jo Francis; music: Mark Isham; cast: Tommy Lee Jones (Hank Deerfield), Charlize Theron (Emily Sanders), Susan Sarandon (Joan Deerfield), James Franco (Sergeant Carnelli), Jonathan Tucker (Mike Deerfield), Frances Fisher (Evie, bare-breasted bartender), Jason Patric (Lieutenant Kirklander), Josh Brolin (Chief Buchwald), Wes Chatham (Cpl. Penning), Mehcad Brooks (Spc. Ennis Long), Victor Wolf (Private Robert Ortiez), Jake McLaughlin (Spc. Gordon Bonner); Runtime: 120; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Paul Haggis/Laurence Becsey/Patrick Wachsberger/Steven Samuels/Darlene Caamano Loquet; Warner Brothers; 2007)

“… essential viewing.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The title refers to the spot where the biblical David slew the Philistine giant Goliath. The Old Testament tale is interpreted here to mean overcoming one’s fear of the giant by standing up to him from close range and slapping him down. But it also offers the sobering commentary, after much reflection, that having courage is not enough to defeat an unseen enemy in Iraq. In the guise of a gripping police procedural drama by Paul Haggis (“Crash”), in his second effort as a writer-director after snagging Best Picture honors in his debut, it manages to become more than just a murder-mystery thriller; the grisly crime scene puts a human face on the disastrous war in Iraq by exploring from the supposedly safe haven of stateside the dehumanizing effects it causes for the U.S. soldiers and their families. It’s based on Mark Boal’s original article on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (Death and Dishonor) amongst returning vets from Afghanistan and Iraq that first appeared in Playboy; it’s inspired by real events (suggested by the actual murder of Specialist Richard Davis in 2003), and is filmed by the excellent cinematographer Roger Deakins who has a good eye for detail and making things somberly realistic by employing a washed-out look.

That this competently made and superbly acted film moves from an entertaining police tale to a highly charged psychological drama that depicts how the war, the major issue of the day for Americans, has caused great damage to America’s psyche and morality, makes it essential viewing. Its overriding message that “War is hell, and civilians can’t imagine the bad things people do in combat,”might be a familiar one to recent movie goers of war dramas, but is nevertheless still an important unlearned lesson. The reality on the ground, as seen in several pieces of video footage, points to a brutal war with no end in sight because no one has the nerve to end it. This film just adds one more piece to the overall picture of a war gone wrong, as it tells the story of how the returning grunts are having problems adjusting to life after their combat experience and that the war has left America reeling as a scarred country under distress.

Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones) is a spit-and-polish, hardnosed, retired military police officer, now working as a gravel hauler, who learns that his son Mike (Jonathan Tucker), an Army specialist recently returned from Iraq after 18 months, has gone AWOL from his Fort Rudd base in New Mexico. The determined dad, anxious to get answers, leaves his long-suffering wife Joan (Susan Sarandon), who is sad because they previously lost their older paratrooper son in a military training accident in the States, at home in Munro, Tennessee, and drives in his broken down pickup truck to the New Mexico base. He stops only at the local school to correct an immigrant custodian who is flying the American flag upside down. Hank tells him “That’s a sign of a nation in distress,” and further tells him it means, “We don’t know what we are doing, so come help us.” This serves as the film’s symbolic warning to the country, and what some critics took as a heavy-handed political rant.

Receiving no help from the indifferent but polite military brass, with a politically motivated and not forthright Lieutenant Kirklander (Jason Patric) being the frontman on the missing person investigation, the patriotic and caring dad begins his own investigation by stealing his son’s cellphone when allowed to inspect Mike’s living quarters in the barracks. He also gets no help from his son’s soldier buddies Cpl. Penning (Wes Chatham), Spc. Ennis Long (Mehcad Brooks), and Spc. Gordon Bonner (Jake McLaughlin), who give him misinformation. Soon the young man’s charred and dismembered remains are found in the desert. The army, for its own political reasons, wishes to stonewall any investigation attempts and the incompetent local police believe the crime took place out of their jurisdiction and are glad to have the military handle it. But Hank is not satisfied with the little effort put in by the military and finds an ally to assist his unofficial investigation in the newly appointed inexperienced local police detective and single mom Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron), who has been accused by her male chauvinistic colleagues of being promoted solely because of her affair with Chief Buchwald (Josh Brolin). She’s the only other person besides Hank who seems to care enough to want to get to the bottom of this tragic crime, and gets the chance when Hank proves to her the crime did take place in the town limits and that the body was dragged to the place of discovery.

Hank shows off his adept skills as an investigator by uncovering a number of clues the local police simply overlooked, which leads to using his son’s JPEGs in his cellphone to trace the combat action in Iraq, questioning bartenders in strip joints and the manager of a fast-food place near the base, and forcing the bureaucratic army investigators to get active in the case. Eventually dark secrets about Mike are revealed, such as harrowing incidents that took place in Iraq, drug use, possible connections with Mexican drug gangs or local drug dealers, and how the war has traumatized the soldiers. It all comes to the front, and the disturbing crime is solved but not before it’s clearly shown how far-reaching is this poisonous war.

The 60-year-old Tommy Lee Jones, in perhaps his best performance ever, gives an electrifying performance that rocks the screen and makes you feel his pain, as even in his silence he’s able to express the grief he’s feeling and he gives the film its unrelenting and unforgettable force. It’s through Hank’s eyes as a grief-stricken father questioning his own military beliefs and what went so wrong in a war he thought had some value and all the while intensely conducting a relentless search for a son he thought he knew, that we are forced to fall back into Iraq’s nasty dark war and to the atrocities committed by the American soldier and to the high number of civilian deaths. In the end, the film serves as a metaphor for America’s dubious involvement in such a blood-soaked conflict and how it stays in the mind of the young returning soldiers (some sixteen percent suffer from post-traumatic stress disorders).