Saturday 15 May 2021

Movie Review: In The Valley Of Elah (2007)

A military murder mystery, In The Valley Of Elah is a brooding drama exploring post-war trauma and a father's persistence.

Retired military police sergeant Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones) learns that his son Mike, a US Army soldier, recently returned from combat duty in Iraq but has now gone missing. Hank leaves his wife Joan (Susan Saranson) behind and travels to Fort Rudd, New Mexico, to investigate. The Army's First Lieutenant Kirklander (Jason Patric) and local police detective Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron) have no clues explaining Mike's whereabouts.

Before long Mike's dismembered and burned body is found in a field. Kirklander suspects the soldier may have been caught up in drug smuggling activities, while after a thorny start Sanders teams up with Hank to trace his son's movements on the fateful night. Mike's squad members are interviewed, and gradually a disturbing story starts to emerge.

Dark, serious and level-headed, In The Valley Of Elah reveals its secrets slowly. Directer Paul Haggis co-wrote the script with Mark Boal, and uses Tommy Lee Jones' craggy, weather-pummelled face to delve deep into a proud multi-generational military culture hiding the potential for tragedy. With deliberate pacing, the narrative focuses on a compelling small-town investigation complicated by jurisdictional tensions, eventually leading to startling revelations.

Haggis and Boal do have a destination in mind and an agenda to highlight, but they apply a soft touch in delivering the message. Hank as a proud former military man is in no rush to judge the army or his nation's military adventurism. Instead he despises investigative incompetence, bureaucratic foot-dragging and lack of transparency. The disquieting realities of combat-caused dehumanization speak for themselves, and Hank's sorrow deepens with institutional failures placing young men in impossible situations.

The narrative weaknesses reside in the relatively poorly defined individuals making up Mike's surviving squad members. This group of young men becomes more influential as the story evolves, but they are afforded little time to emerge as people before suddenly being thrust into the final act's spotlight glare.

Haggis surrounds Hank with small-town context. Detective Sanders operates in the shadow of a military base, and is waging her own low-key battle against workplace sexism. The community is beset by cases of domestic abuse that may be limited to dogs getting hurt, or much worse. And the local businesses consist of eateries, bars and strip joints catering to young men either getting trained to kill or returning from the horrors of killing. 

Charlize Theron, Susan Sarandon and Jason Patric support Jones without having to stretch. In a relatively small but impactful performance, Sarandon does convey a mother living under the suffocating shroud of worry imposed by the realities of sons in the military. James Franco, Josh Brolin and Zoe Kazan appear in small roles.

In The Valley Of Elah is a reference to the site of David's battle with Goliath. Combatants still require exceptional courage to step into the jaws of battle, but also exceptional support to step out intact.

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