Every so often, a movie earns the title of “Film.” In the Valley of Elah is that film. Powerful and touching writing, exceptional acting, particular visuals, and marvelous direction make In the Valley of Elah a film of timeless quality.
Retired Sergeant Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones) gets a phone call saying his son is absent without leave. Unable to accept that his son would abandon his duties as a soldier, he leaves his wife Joan (Susan Sarandon), and he drives to his son’s base to investigate his son’s disappearance. When he doesn’t get the response he wants from the military police, he sets off to contact the civilians. The civilians aren’t any more helpful. They tell him that he must contact the army police because they are in charge of their people, they wouldn’t investigate his disappearance. A jurisdictional nightmare, the only people who seem actively investigating the case is Hank Deerfield and Detective Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron) follows behind in tow. The investigation is a fight with the army, a troubling examination of willful incompetence and tragic truths.
The writing in In the Valley of Elah is subtly powerful, beautiful, and demands introspection. Every aspect of this movie requires a second look or further thought. Each character and event is important to the progression and resolution of the story. Even the sheets have important symbolic meaning.
The acting in In the Valley of Elah is beautiful, smooth, and natural. The cast; primary, secondary, and fleeting, are captivating.
Hank Deerfield is rigid, molded, blindly patriotic, and militaristic. He investigates the death of his son as if it were the death of a stranger: with cold, dispassionate precision. I felt bad for him because I think he is not able to feel the emotion that a parent in his situation would probably feel. Jones avoids making him one dimensional or robotic. Even though his behavior would be unnatural for most of us, Jones makes it feel natural for Hank. His personality may be wrong for civilian society, but is perfectly manufactured for the service. When he starts to unravel, Jones’s cracks are so small but are profound. The only way we can tell what Hank is feeling in In the Valley of Elah are his phone calls to his wife, Joan.
Joan is Hank’s emotion and what he feels we see through her. That isn’t to say Joan is an emotional disaster; she isn’t. Her emotions are incredibly restrained but not absent. Sarandon’s portrayal of a Midwestern military wife and mother is touching and had a dramatic personal affect on me. Her heartiness with rich, raw emotion and unparalleled strength made me admire and pity her. Sarandon’s character has little screen time in In the Valley of Elah, but she captures every scene.
Charlize Theron is exceptional as Emily Sanders. Detective Emily Sanders is a blending of Joan and Hank. She doesn’t fear her emotion but she doles out her emotional responses carefully. There is nothing confusing about how she is feeling at any one time. Theron gives Emily a soft disorder that makes her feel human and flawed.
Not to be outdone by the writing or acting, the visuals of In the Valley of Elah are spectacular. Without becoming sluggish, the cinematographer, Roger Deakins, created long shots, held still in place that accentuate the brilliant acting throughout. I noticed the particular attention to the framing in the film. The smooth progression across the setting of a scene, moving from one well framed shot to another shows painstaking attention to the visuals of the film.
I left In the Valley of Elah asking questions of our country, our military, and myself. What happens to the people we train to kill a person without conscience when they are released into the civilian population, and what happens to the civilian population when a conscienceless killer is released? How responsible are we when we don’t give these killers the mental health attention or transition time they desperately need? Is it penny wise and dollar stupid not to get these people the help they need while in combat and when they return? I love it when movies have a take-away that opens the door of discussion about topics currently relevant but more timeless than expected.
Some movies you see to escape reality and some you see to make you examine reality more clearly. In the Valley of Elah will cause you to scrutinize our country’s behavior and beliefs.