Review: In the Valley of Elah

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

In the Valley of Elah from 2007 is a searing condemnation of the war in Iraq. The story is a mystery about a father and a cop who investigate the son’s murder just outside a mythical Army base in New Mexico. 

The son Mike (Jonathan Tucker), a soldier just back from Iraq, goes missing. His father Hank (Tommy Lee Jones), an ex-Army investigator, goes to the Army base to look for him. His mother (Susan Sarandon) waits for word at home.

Not long after Hank arrives in New Mexico, a burned and dismembered body with at least 42 stab wounds is found in the desert not far from the base. It’s Mike.

The local cops investigate first. Det. Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron) works with a group of police who have no respect for her because she’s a woman. The men quickly decide the case falls under the jurisdiction of the Army and turn it over to them to investigate.

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

Hank and Emily had already met before the body was discovered. He’d made the rounds of local police and Army during his own hunt for his son. Hank takes Emily back to the crime scene and shows her evidence that the murder did not actually take place on Army land. It’s a local jurisdiction case.

Emily goes back to her superiors and takes back the investigation of the case. She fights for permission to interview all the soldiers who were with Mike on the last night of his life.

Hank gets a chance to look at his son’s quarters on the base and sneaks out a cell phone that was in a drawer. The phone contained corrupted videos of Iraq. Hank has them partially restored, but the video is hard to decipher – full of static and fritzed out images.

We see the war from an outsiders perspective. The cell phone video. The interviews and investigations with witnesses who might know something about the murder. We gain fractured glimpses of Mike’s time in Iraq. We get hints as to how damaged and broken the men who returned from that war are. Not just from Mike’s case, but also from another case that Emily was involved in about another soldier back from Iraq whose wife begged Emily for help.

Hank learns horrible things about his son. Emily learns horrible things about what men damaged by war can do to those they love and care about. The expressions on the faces of Hank and Emily when they find out who did the murder are as dark and troubled as the hearts of the men they investigated.

All through In the Valley of Elah, we hear George W. Bush on televisions in the background. Talking about the war with optimism and good cheer. Nobody has to say that the horrors we learn about in the film are the responsibility of the Bush administration. It’s just there.

The worst scene, to me, was when Hank packed up his son’s belongings. As he was leaving the room in the barracks, a fresh-faced young soldier came in to take the space. Another young body to send to war. Just one of an apparently endless stream of young men to send to fight in a place where we should never have been. This moment was even sadder than the heartbreaking tears shed by Mike’s mother when she got the phone call from her husband about the murder. One mother’s tears symbolized the losses of thousands of families – to death, to mental anguish, to shattered lives.

In the Valley of Elah was written and directed by Paul Haggis, based on a story by Mark Boal. The direction was as stoic as the ex-military Tommy Lee Jones, as careworn as the overworked single mom Charlize Theron, as guarded as the Army lieutenant played by Jason Patric. The drama came though accumulation. Fact by fact. Clue by clue. Terror by terror. With George W. Bush chortling in the background.

The exemplary cast also included James Franco, Josh Brolin, Frances Fisher, Wes Chatham, Jake McLaughlin, Mehcad Brooks, Roman Arabia and several others.

If you haven’t already seen this outstanding film, it’s definitely worth watching.

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