Judge Ryan Keefer knows that very few things can mend a shattered spirit.
Our review of In The Valley Of Elah (Blu-Ray), published March 6th, 2008, is also available.
Sometimes finding the truth is easier than facing it.
In a continually growing group of films either set in the Middle East or around the Iraq War, In the Valley of Elah came and went rather quickly, though for those presumptive few who have seen it, they have heaped praise on its Oscar-laden cast, one of whom has been receiving some singular acclaim for his work in the film. So now that it's coming out to video, is In the Valley of Elah as good as everyone says it is?
Facts of the Case
Paul Haggis, who won an Oscar for writing and directing Crash has returned to pen a script which might also serve as a commentary on war and the damage it has on those who serve. Based on the factual events surrounding the story of Iraq War veteran Richard Davis, Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones, The Fugitive) is a retired military policeman who served during the Vietnam War. He discovers that his son Mike has been reported as Absent Without Leave upon his return from a tour of duty in Iraq. He decides to let his wife Joan (Susan Sarandon, Dead Man Walking) know that he's driving to Mike's base to find out where he is. After being stymied by the base's Investigation Department, the presumptive "camouflage wall" if you will, he decides to enlist the help of the local police department and their detective, a single mother named Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron, Monster), as a jurisdictional battle begins to emerge. So while Hank tries to find out what happens to his son, larger, more impacting events within the characters in the film unfold.
Putting aside the performance of Tommy Lee Jones, which everyone has been talking about for good reason, and putting aside the fact that there are three Oscar winners headlining the film, there's quite a supporting cast who came onto the film and appeared in smaller roles, some of whom you'll recognize from Jones' other current Academy darling No Country for Old Men. Both Barry Corbin (Northern Exposure) and Josh Brolin (American Gangster) come back to appear in the film with Jones as Hank's Army buddy and the police chief of the town, one who looks at working with the military and not "inconveniencing" them for requests for information or action. James Franco (Spider Man 3) is on screen for a cup of coffee as the sergeant who shows Hank around the barracks, and his son's quarters, when he arrives to the post. And Jason Patric (Rush) is one of the post's CID detectives. They all help lend credence to the performances of the stars.
And how about those stars? A role of an aging mother who might be burying her second (and last) child prematurely is a plum one for any actress, but Sarandon approaches it with a somewhat different tact. She has few scenes that have any human interaction, as most of them are on the other end of a phone with Jones' character, but there's a sequence when she appears on post that shows you what her maternal instincts are like. Those instincts help give the relationship between her and Jones strong credibility. And speaking of credibility, some of the soldiers in the film were apparently Gulf War vets themselves, adding even more gravitas to the production.
But the talk of the film is Jones' performance, for justifiable reason. Everyone has identified Hank's restraint, something that Jones perhaps wasn't used to executing, but he does it exceptionally well. His lack of substantive emotion is heartwrenching, even to this crusty old soul. At the end of the film, you want him to release it all, and he's got damn good reason to do it. But the funny thing is that to do that would be either a waste of time or even embarrassing to Hank. He does everything in a quiet and understated way. He drives day and night to Mike's post. He asks to review witness statements and evidence. He confronts people who might have been responsible for Mike's disappearance. He knows the routines and practices of the military; in a scene where Mike is greeted in his motel room by a soldier from the post, the vision is startling for Hank in the sense that he knows what is about to come. Separate scenes both in the beginning and end of the movie when Hank stops at a building that flies the American flag says a lot about what his beliefs were both before and after the incident. Whether the film is pro or anti-Iraq war isn't the point; it's about the emotional toll on those who fight, and the consequences they face afterwards. Coming from an area where a twenty year old kid goes thousands of miles away and possibly finds himself killing women and children (or worse), returning home to more sedate circumstances is like trying to stop a flood from a dam with both hands. It's something that perhaps can't be turned off, unless a great deal is done to suppress it. Perhaps Hank has, and his stoicism is a blessing and a curse.
Technically, the 2.40:1 VC-1 encoded widescreen presentation of In the Valley of Elah presents itself as pretty capable. Blacks are fairly deep and provide quite a bit of contrast, and this by no means is a colorful film from a palette perspective, and you're not going to get a lot of image depth. I couldn't really tell the different between this and the standard definition version of the film, conveniently located on the other side of this HD DVD/DVD combo disc, but it's a serviceable disc. The Dolby TrueHD surround option is just as fine, this is a fairly quiet film so don't expect a lot of surround activity or low end fidelity, it's mostly dialogue with an occasional speaker pan or two, and it's equally competent.
Extras wise the standard definition and HD DVD have identical extras. While it would have been nice to have Haggis contribute a commentary for the film, I'll take what I can get with it. Two featurettes accompany the disc, starting with "After Iraq," which runs for about a half hour. It features interviews with those who served and those who are actors in the film, and each group discusses how they're going to adjust to their roles. Davis' parents discuss the effort to find their son, while there are some observations on the production. "Coming Home" is an interesting fifteen minute look at the film, featuring interviews from those who served as they share their thoughts on post-traumatic stress disorder. This also includes additional insight from other cast members, and is filmed mostly on set, culminating with memories of Davis by his family. Both pieces are conversational without being narrative, with the casual nature making it more engaging. Two deleted scenes that total about eight minutes in length are the only other things to speak of, both of which concentrate on a character who was cut from film, but the scenes are good and absolutely should have stayed in the final version if you ask me.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
While it's nice to see that Theron plays the role of a detective stymied by sexism in a military town rather convincingly without any thought or concern to her appearance, there are sequences that she and/or Patric appear in that simply don't really do anything except contribute an obligatory sequence which I've seen in a lot of military procedurals. You know, where the "civilian do gooder" runs into the secretive military and gets turned away, but by God she means business and the military will eventually give in. There are similar scenes in the film that seem to hint at this also. Quite honestly it seemed like an unoriginal tactic and one best left unattended by Haggis; the film deserved a bit better than that.
In the Valley of Elah is filled with familiar faces whose performances are wholly convincing; Jones' Oscar nomination is well earned. While this might be a message film, the message is about the ravages of war on soldiers who served in Iraq. The legalities for invasion, the war for oil, and all that rhetoric is disposed of and at the core is a movie that deserves to be seen and heard regardless of ideology.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• "In the Valley of Elah: After Iraq"
Review content copyright © 2008 Ryan Keefer; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.