In the Valley of Elah (2007) Poster

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Quietly effective
Tony4324 September 2007
The big movies about the Vietnam war -- Apocalypse Now, Deer Hunter, Full Metal Jacket -- didn't reach the screen until about five years after the war ended. But movies dealing with Iraq and terrorism are cropping up all over even as this war still rages.

What exactly that means is hard to know, but it would seem to indicate that no matter which side of the issue they come down on, the filmmakers are willing to risk alienating about half the potential audience in an America more polarized today than at any point in our history.

"In the Valley of Elah" treads lightly on the politics for most of the movie, concentrating on the unfolding mystery of what happened to a young soldier who vanishes shortly after returning from a tour of duty in Iraq. Looking for answers are his father, a former sergeant in the Army's Criminal Investigation Division, and a young female civilian detective, who gets involved in the case, gets bounced off in a jurisdictional dispute, but winds up back on the case when its determined the crime took place off military property.

While director Paul Haggis gets uniformly good performances out of all the characters, the movie belongs to Tommy Lee Jones as the grieving father and Charlize Theron as the determined detective. Both turn in outstanding performances. Jones shines, playing a man who has spent his life holding in his emotions and can't change now, even as his world falls apart. Theron radiates strength as a woman trying to survive in a sexist police department where all her male colleagues are certain she slept her way into her detective's job. That is somewhat important to the story, because the movie provides a look into the lower class white community that provides the bulk of the recruits in the all volunteer army.

None of this really deals with the politics of the war, though, and it is not until the very end of the film that politics come into play, and even there, it is handled with great care. The message is more about the kind of war America finds itself fighting today and what that type of combat does to the men who engage in it. Unlike world wars one and two, Vietnam and Iraq are not wars between easily recognized enemies. We are not battling the Germans or the Japanese. In both Nam and Iraq, Americans find it is difficult to tell friend from foe. That means they often must make snap decisions that sometimes determine whether they themselves live or die. Needless to say, their decisions also determine the fate of the people in the sights of their weapons..

"In the Valley of Elah" does an excellent job of showing that post traumatic stress syndrome is not an oddity, but rather a growing problem in an army of young men whose job requires them to be quick on the trigger.

Every American should see this movie and then think long and hard about it.
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Why do most critics attack this film for being heavy-handed?
bpreston41-129 September 2007
Only Roger Ebert and the reviewer for Rolling Stone seem to see the truth here: this film is slow and elegiac because it deals with heavy matters, but it is never boring, not if you understand the situation and the depth of feelings being explored. It's as if reviewers don't get it because they didn't really feel what the film is saying. Saying that there have been dozens of films about how war ruins men so it's a cliché, and that this one is too dreary and slow means that a person has stopped feeling for what is really hurtful, is even in denial. And that's the theme of this film: what happens when we lose touch with what's painful and don't care any more. The film is restrained but powerful, which is why it has such a strong effect.

Jones is wonderfully grim, with a face like a road map, as he explores what happened to his son. Charlize Theron is beautiful even though she is playing a woman who is forced to act as non-sexy as possible to get on in her job in a male police force. Susan Sarandon is not, as some critic said, "underused"; she gives a performance that is all the more powerful because it is restrained. This movie should be a must see for all who believe that the Iraq war should continue until there is an honorable time for America to leave. That time is already passed.
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In Search Of The Truth
Lechuguilla4 November 2009
A gung-ho ex military man gets word that his son, a soldier in Iraq, has gone AWOL. The film's plot follows the father, played by Tommy Lee Jones, as he sets about trying to find out what happened. Most of the characters here are either military people or local cops.

The story is heavy on mystery and investigation. The father's research skills are more potent than those of some local cops. Subtle plot twists and red herrings throughout keep the story's outcome uncertain until the end.

Based very loosely on a real-life event in 2003, the film's back-story pertains to the war in Iraq. Because of the controversial nature of this war, some viewers will read into the film a nefarious political agenda, dismissing it as propaganda. In point of fact, the motivation that led to the real-life event is, to this day, still shrouded in mystery.

Production values are generally high. The film has terrific, detailed production design. Sound quality is near perfect, which, when combined with the absence of background music in some scenes, enhances a sense of realism. Film editing is reasonably good, though a number of scenes could have been edited out, as they are either unnecessary or a tad confusing. If one is not privy to the film's point of view, the ending is slightly ambiguous, especially with regard to motivations of certain characters. An added line or two of dialogue could have added clarification.

Acting is wonderful. Tommy Lee Jones, with his weather-beaten face, is convincing as a tough, patriotic American military dad. Charlize Theron is satisfying as a frustrated local cop. Even minor roles are well cast. Kathy Lamkin, in a small role, couldn't be any more realistic as the impersonal, haggard manager of a fast-food restaurant.

I found "In The Valley Of Elah" entertaining as a mystery. The terrific casting and acting, along with high production values, render a film that is both realistic and highly believable.
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It's not about war, it's not about murder... it's about coping.
fifty_mm14 September 2007
Warning: Spoilers
The movie uniquely dealt with the mechanism of coping with traumatic experiences. True, it was a war pic. Yes, it had an additional "look what we're doing to our kids" anti-war message (which was driven home in the scene where he's finally leaving his son's barracks and this young, pimply faced kid starts settling in), and yes, it was a murder mystery, but the method in which Haggis portrays the different behaviors the characters exhibit while trying to deal with extremely stressful and traumatic experiences was the main point of the movie.

Haggis drove the point home with careful camera techniques and crafting true-to-life characters. I like the way he kept the camera back at the end of the hallway when Mrs. Deerfield cried into her husband's arms after viewing the mutilated body of her son. He employed a similar method when she broke down and started crying on the phone (Mr. Deerfield: "I'm not gonna sit on the phone and listen to you cry." Mrs. Deerfield: "Then don't") – Deakins has the camera up on the stairs looking directly down on her while she sits hunched over on the floor. It's not that Haggis is "hiding" these moments from the audience – I believe that it is more of a commentary on our disconnection from our own emotions during these moments.

Additionally, Haggis has the actors restrain themselves during the height of when one expects them to indicate the most suffering and when the camera is close enough to expose it, i.e. Mr. Deerfield seeing his mutilated son for the first time, also towards the end when he realizes that his own rigid personality alienated his son from himself and Cpl. Penning's almost robotic, non-remorseful confession of murdering Spc. Deerfield – which was a phenomenal performance – are two good examples. You could see the mountain of emotion being suppressed behind his cold exterior. His confession was so level that it was hard for me to accept the fact that he had stabbed Pfc. Deerfield over 42 times, dismembered his body, then set fire to it. But this is exactly the point Haggis was trying to make – this disconnection from reality; death as a video game with no consequences ("React or die. React or die.") By the way, I think Tommy Lee Jones did an amazing job as well. And that's an understatement.

Further exposés on the aspects of coping include the side story of the soldier who first held down his Doberman in the tub until it drowned and subsequently repeated that action with his wife instead. Spc. Bonner hanging himself for his involvement in the murder of Deerfield. Pvt. Ortiez's full denial of the fact that their squad ran over an Iraqi child ("That wasn't no kid. That was a dog. As far as I'm concerned, that was a dog. I don't know what that picture is."). More importantly, Spc. Deerfield's own methods of coping served to act as the catalyst for the plot. The one moment he had (and the only moment in the movie where tears are actually shown falling) where he tried to reach out to his father ("Dad, something happened. Can you get me out of here?"), he got snubbed. So his ability to cope manifested itself into destructive behavior: doing drugs, bad-mouthing the stripper, torturing the "Haji" militant, picking fights with his comrades – ultimately leading to his demise. All of these characters had their demons to deal with. The point of the movie was how to deal with those monsters. The title, itself, acting as a metaphor to that exact question. The Valley of Elah – where David took his stand against Goliath – was where all the characters of this movie stood in the shadows of their own Goliaths. Some fought (Mrs. Deerfield, Det. Sanders), some stuck their heads in the sand (Ortiez, Mr. Deerfield), and some ran away (Penning, Bonner). Much like the tagline states: sometimes finding the truth is easier than facing it.

I also thought the movie was unique in the angle it took on war: its psychological impact. Excluding such crappy movies like, "Iron Eagles" and "Flight of the Intruder", good war movies have more than an "accomplishing-an-objective" plot type in mind. "Saving Private Ryan", although based entirely around an objective, used the multitude of horrors the characters encountered to highlight their methods of dealing with it. I'd say this movie was more along the lines of "Deer Hunter" or "Jarhead" – where what you see in war plays second fiddle to how you deal with what you see in war.

The only objection I had to the movie (a very moderate one) was originated by my girlfriend, who served in Iraq – I hadn't thought about it until she brought it up. True, the movie is a very small "slice of life" take on our involvement in Iraq (granted, PTSD is a MAJOR aspect of this war – but there are many other facets as well), so it's not entirely unjustified to have ALL the soldiers of this movie be so "f***ed up" from their wartime experiences. However, it would have been nice to see at least one soldier try to cope with his demons in a more constructive way – be it counseling or in some other non-destructive method. When I visited my girlfriend in Germany, during her leave, I came across pamphlets, brochures, and television commercials (on the Armed Services Network) that encouraged infantry men and women to seek counseling in helping deal with PTSD, acclimating to life in the states again, returning to their families, and so forth. Nevertheless, personally, I don't feel that this is too critical of a point to make – Haggis is trying to illustrate a specific notion of the effects of war and shouldn't have to cater to any of the "exceptions to the rule."
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In the Valley of Elah
phantomtristan28 September 2007
Warning: Spoilers
There have been many films about the aftermath of war, but never have I seen such a brutally honest and shocking depiction of the de-humanization of soldiers back from war. This is the underlying premise of the new crime thriller from academy award winning writer/director Paul Haggis (Crash).

Hank Deerfield (played by Tommy Lee Jones) is a retired veteran and military police officer searching for his son who has gone AWOL. A detective Emily Sanders (played by Charlize Theron) becomes interested in the case and starts helping Hank outside of her job. When Hank's son's body is found, the search suddenly turns into a search for the murderer.

One of the many aspects I appreciated was that director Haggis did not turn this into a typical Hollywood crime thriller and also not turn it into a political propaganda piece against the war and President Bush. Instead he mixes the two plots together seamless and subtle, letting you decide for your self.

Tommy Lee Jones gives the best performance of his long career as he plays a quiet, emotionless war vet, but still shows tremendous amount of emotion. Just watching his face as he sits in a diner and listens to one of his retired friends tell him about plans to go visit his grandchildren is heartbreaking. We can almost see the internal emotional struggle as he realizes he will never be able to do that. Charlize Theron does a wonderful job as the detective, and despite her small screen time Susan Surandon plays the grieving wife of Jones to perfection.

This film is such a moving masterpiece on so many levels it is simply wonderful to watch. The quiet pacing of the film building up to the climax is captivatingly intense in its own way. I am sure this will be a popular film at the Oscars this year, and if they gave out awards for best scene this would be sure to garner a nomination for a simple, poignant, yet profoundly moving scene when Frank tells the story of David and Goliath (which took place in the Valley of Elah) to the little son of detective Sanders.
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War as Parable - IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH
seaview121 September 2007
'War is hell' but perhaps it is the postwar that is most telling. At least that is the thesis of Paul Haggis' latest film, In the Valley of Elah, a story of a father's quest for his son that reveals some bitter truths about war. Not an easy film to swallow upfront, it is certainly one of the best films of the year.

A grizzled, former military policeman, Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones), is notified that his son, Mike, is AWOL after returning from the fighting in Iraq. What begins as a methodical search for his son's whereabouts becomes more tragic and clashes with local police and military brass. Where is his son, and what do his soldier buddies know about one fateful night near their base? And what if anything did happen to him in Iraq? These questions are answered in small pieces and with alarming implications. Hank's skills at police work help convince local Detective Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron) to take charge of the case despite the doubts of her own colleagues and the military, led by investigator Lt. Kirklander (Jason Patric). Mike's PDA has garbled video that begins to paint a disturbing picture of the war front. Hank's search takes an emotional toll on himself and his wife (Susan Sarandon). He and Emily form an uneasy alliance, and, amid theories and suspects, what emerges is an ominous portrait of war veterans on the homefront. Ultimately Hank comes face to face with a disarming truth about his son's fate and the possible involvement of his military brethren.

The story is based on actual events in 2001 in Tennessee, and its title references the mythic tale of David and Goliath set at a time when the rules of engagement were different than the present. Its sparse, simplistic structure of a mystery peppered with flashback video and imagery may seem on surface like an independent film, but its message and execution is on a grander scale and not merely with dialogue. With effective visuals, much is conveyed by silence, expression, or simple body language.

As with other Haggis films, things that seem ordinary and insignificant at the beginning have implications later on. Though not as overtly obvious with connecting a myriad of dots as in his Oscar winner Crash, the threads are all there to gradually weave together. It is refreshing that the jurisdictional conflict between local police and the military does not take a stereotypic turn of heavy handed conspiracy and cover-up even though the military investigators are not cast in the best light. It shares a similar feel with the recent Courage Under Fire where the truth is unearthed in small bits until a bigger picture emerges. A couple of minor plot points go nowhere such as Hank meeting an old comrade who may have connections with military intelligence.

As grandiose and flamboyant as was his Oscar–winning turn in The Fugitive, Tommy Lee Jones' acting here is equally underplayed; he is magnificent. Through the pain and guilt that creep over his lined features, you also feel his suffering, his loss, and understand his bitterness. His Hank is a proud man, a patriot, who wants the truth. The truth ultimately changes him forever. Equally up to the challenge is Theron, in a strong performance, whose detective is a single mother who must battle her own squad and superiors while trying to solve a mystery. Even Sarandon's brief moments are affecting as the long distance wife. The rest of the cast is very good; they become real people.

This is not simply the readjustment to the homefront done magnificently in The Best Years of Our Lives or the heavy use of dramatic love triangle to condemn the Vietnam War in Coming Home. Rather, it takes the concept of a given war and allows it to become the ultimate villain in an increasingly sordid mystery. Its ending calls to mind The Deer Hunter but with a more pessimistic bent. It most certainly vilifies the effects of war on its men.

It is significant that a passing quote, "We all do stupid things," says something about not just the horror of warfare, but what such conflict does to its soldiers, and how they become soulless monsters capable of the most brutal of crimes. This is a brave, imperfect film that sets a somber tone and never lets up. The final image is a statement that makes this perhaps the subtlest of antiwar films ever. Oscar nominations can start here with picture, direction, screenplay, and the duo of Jones and Theron. While not everyone will be willing to let the story unfold with its nuanced direction and understated acting, those who are patient will find a moving tale of innocence lost and corrupted.
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Surprisingly Poetic and Not Very Political.
Movie-Jay30 September 2007
This movie is just about perfect. I love how it starts as a genre movie and then transcends into something deeper and soul-searching. Some people just don't like Paul Haggis, but I'm not one of them. I think he's very smart here; he has no political point of view, he handles Charlize Theron perfectly, and the movie forces everybody to think about the troops in a way that isn't simply political rhetoric. I love that Tommy Lee Jones feels the way so many dads do. He's never been better. Watching the police work happen is interesting on it's own, but I like that Charlize Theron is just out to do the job correctly and just shrugs off the chauvinism coming at her from her department. The movie could've gone somewhere with that, but instead just quietly lets us in on it and moves on.

There have been many very good movies the last few years about Iraq-related themes, but I don't think there is a film that captures the feeling of the national mood as good as this one. It's drained of melodrama and just sort of moves forward on really good performances of the whole cast, who all act according to their natures instead of because of stupid plot requirements.
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Michael Fargo15 September 2007
Warning: Spoilers
There is a remarkable absence of polemic in this film which elevates it to something mythic...perhaps distills the subject matter to something we should face. No one should be able to fault the performances here, but I was most impressed with the director's careful avoidance of political point of view. It's the opposite of what, say, Costa-Garvas did with "Missing." There are no speeches or lectures, but watching illusions and faith in old systems being peeled away is very powerful. And very, very sad.

We need this film (whether we like it or not). Abu Ghraib happened. And not accepting the moral consequences leads us to a very troubling conclusion.

Tommy Lee Jones is amazing here. Susan Sarandon, in a small part, makes a vivid presence. Charlize Theron seems miscast (would a woman this beautiful and smart be in this job?), but she adds another fine character to her work.

While there is a very interesting texture to the film, that is, cell phone movies are used to move the plot forward, and what we see is not quite clear so we want to find out more, just like the characters in the action, Haggis chose to withhold crucial information from the audience until the end of film. I'm not sure that strengthens the film's structure. We're left with a lot to process in the final moments, and had we known what the central character knew from the beginning, our journey with him might have had deeper resonance, his motives and internal conflicts clearer.

I hope people see this. I know that this war has always divided our nation. But the men and women who fought or fight there need to have this story told. We've made our predicament unfairly theirs. It's a very unhappy thing and congratulations seem out of place. But the filmmakers and performers deserve admiration and our thanks.
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A compelling and moving film
Howard Schumann10 March 2008
Loosely based on the story of Richard Davis who was killed by fellow soldiers in Columbus, Georgia after returning from Iraq in 2003, In the Valley of Elah, Paul Haggis' first feature since his Oscar winner Crash is a poignant reminder of how war robs people of their humanity. In one of the best performances of his career, Tommy Lee Jones is Hank Deerfield, a career military man whose son Mike (Jonathan Tucker) is reported as AWOL from his New Mexico base after returning from eighteen months in Iraq. What Hank discovers in searching for Mike is enough to shake his faith in an institution that had nurtured him and threaten his entire world view.

Though Deerfield is an ex-military man who knows the value of discipline and hyper-efficiency, he is a man who carries the scars of the death of his other son, killed in a military training accident. When he learns about Mike's disappearance, he tries to calm the fears of his wife Joan (Susan Sarandon), but one can sense in the lines of sadness etched in his worn face that he is very worried. In a very prophetic scene, as he sets out for the Army base to conduct his own investigation, he notices that an American flag is flying upside down, a symbol of international distress, and stops to teach the groundskeeper the difference.

At the base, Deerfield is thwarted by the stonewalling of the military and the inept local police force and cannot get anywhere with Lt. Kirklander (Jason Patric) who is in charge of the missing person operation. Fortunately, he finds a detective Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron) who is assigned to the case. Taunted by chauvinist fellow detectives who think she slept her way onto the squad, she is eager to prove herself as capable as her detractors. When Deerfield's body is discovered, gruesomely cut up in an open field, Deerfield and Sanders work together to piece together the puzzle, suspecting the involvement of drugs and drug dealers. With the help of video left on Mike's cell phone, however, he discovers secrets that begin to shake his faith in American institutions though he never questions his son's actions.

In one of the most moving sequences in the film, Hank tells Sanders little boy the biblical story of David who killed the giant Goliath with a slingshot in the valley of Elah. Deerfield soon understands, however, that it is not enough to fight your own fears in standing up to an adversary but it is necessary to treat the enemy as a human being while still doing your job. Mike and his fellow soldiers have been unable to erase the ugly violence they perpetrated on civilians in Iraq and have brought this self hatred home. In spite of a too literal ending that robs us of the power of our imagination and borders on the polemic, In the Valley of Elah is a compelling and moving film that makes certain we do not forget what the war in Iraq has done not only to our soldier's bodies but to their minds and souls as well.
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A less soapy, more plot-driven Haggis drama
billybobwashere15 September 2007
There are many people out there who hate the way Paul Haggis made his directorial debut, "Crash," an overly soapy and stupidly-tied-together drama (at least, that's what it felt like to them). Those people don't have to worry. His second major directorial outing, "In the Valley of Elah," avoids both of the "mistakes" (although I'd hardly call them that, seeing as he won Best Picture for what he did with "Crash") that he made last time around. Instead of mixing together multiple stories and having them all connect at the very end, this movie revolves around one main story, a story that seems a lot like the modern-day war version of "Chinatown." Instead of going for simple emotional tugs that he did with "Crash," this film focuses on its understated performances, namely from Tommy Lee Jones, who is superb in this film. It is truly courageous of Paul Haggis to be willing to make some serious changes to the style that won him a Best Picture Academy Award, and even more impressive that he pulls it off very well.

The story revolves around an ex-military officer, Hank Deerfield, who is told that his son, a soldier returning home from Iraq, has gone missing. Jones plays the character in such a quiet way that makes you feel like he thinks he shouldn't be showing emotion, but has a lot of it bottled up inside of him. When he arrives at the military station, people don't seem to want to tell him what happened, and say that they expect he'll come to the base anytime soon (this is portrayed especially well by James Franco, who you may know as Harry Osbourne from the "Spider-man" movies).

Refusing to believe that it's as simple as that, Deerfield is relentless in getting information out of people as to what really happened. It's the way he functioned in the army, and it benefits him greatly as he has to get any information he can out of people. Enter Detective Emily Sanders (played by a very strong Charlize Theron), who at first just wants to get through her job for the day, but soon gets wrapped up in also discovering what really happened to Deerfield's son. The two of them have great chemistry together, as their two different personalities give two different perspectives on what's happening.

The movie works because although it does have quite a few negative things to say about the current war in Iraq, the entire film isn't a two-hour tirade against it. It only makes that message part of the story, and does it in subtle ways (aka the soldiers don't just go "" but take a lot more time expressing their emotion). Much of the story works like a mixture between the great film "Chinatown" and a much better-acted, better-written version of a really good episode of "CSI." Although there may be a few too many twists and lies circling about, it comes to its conclusion very well in a satisfying way for the audience.

Paul Haggis has an uncanny way of bringing out great performances from all of his actors. The performance of Tommy Lee Jones could be the best of his career, he brings out a much more emotionally quiet side in Charlize Theron than we've before seen, the short performance of Susan Sarandon is particularly powerful, and all of the soldiers are played with a feeling of sincerity. The acting is probably the strongest element of the film, and if there's any "weak part," it would have to be the way Haggis forced out some of the plot twists to make the film as long as he wanted it to be.

Regardless of its few problems, "In the Valley of Elah" is both a very well-mannered look at the war in Iraq and its effects on the people involved, as well as a very interesting crime thriller. At the heart of it is Haggis's quietly powerful directing style and the cast's powerfully quiet performances. I don't see this picking up a Best Picture nomination as Haggis's past three Oscar hopeful screenplays ("Letters from Iwo Jima," "Crash," and "Million Dollar Baby"), but I would not be surprised to see it pick up a few acting nominations as well as possibly a screenplay nod. If it would have definitely earned it.
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