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Movie Review: In the Valley of Elah

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If you have read me on a regular basis, you will know that I am not very politically minded. I do not follow politics, and have very little interest in the subject. I mention this because when I see "politically charged" films, I generally don't pay much attention to, or even notice, the political subtext that seems to be apparent to so many other people.

In the Valley of Elah is one of those films that has anti-war implications that could be considered heavy-handed and leads people to label it as propaganda or a way of Hollywood bashing the government and the military. I am not so blind that I do not see these elements. However, these are not something that I dwell on, they lead down a dark path that is less about the movie and more about the real world. What I see in In the Valley of Elah is a touching story of a father searching for answers.

In the Valley of Elah was inspired by the very real case of Richard Davis, an Iraq war vet who was murdered by his fellow soldiers shortly after returning from the Middle East. His father, Lanny, a retired Vietnam vet, pursued an investigation that led to the arrest of four soldiers. I did not know this going in. I am not sure if it would have made a difference to the outcome, although it did lead to a bit of a surprise partway through with the discovery of soldier's murder. It does not appear to be any secret what this was inspired by, I just did not take the time to look into it beforehand.

The movie opens with Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones) getting a call from Fort Rudd informing him that his son is home from Iraq, has gone AWOL, and must report in a few days to prevent prosecution. Well, this is news that does not sit well with Hank as this is not behavior that is typical of his son. So, leaving behind his worried wife (Susan Sarandon), Hank gets in his truck and makes the drive to the base in an attempt to find some answers.

When he gets there, the retired MP investigator conducts a little investigation of his own. He visits his son's bunk, acquiring his son's heat-damaged cell phone in the process. His travels lead him to strip clubs, a chicken shack, and ultimately the local police precinct. There he meets Emily (Charlize Theron), a recently promoted detective having her own issues with her new position. Anyway, remains of a murdered soldier are discovered. They are identified as Hank's son, Mike. Soon the case is being closed up and everyone is expected to move on.

Hank is not the kind of man that is going to forget this, and with the help of Emily, pursues a deeper investigation into what led to his son's death. What he discovers is the effect of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), suffered by individuals who have served in a war. They have the inability to process the impulses when outside the war zone, leading to reactions that we, as people who have not seen combat, do not necessarily understand. It also brings up the very real idea of these soldiers not receiving all of the help that they need to deal with the horrors of war.

No, this is nothing new, and most of us likely understand this without a movie telling us. Fortunately, there is much more to this than learning the terrible effects that war have on the individual. It is not about saying that all soldiers suffer from PTSD, or that none of them are able to control their impulses. This film is about this incident, and more specifically with the soldier's father trying to find reason amongst the chaos. Yes, it does have larger implications, but the personal ones are the ones that ring true and ultimately reach home.

Tommy Lee Jones is the heart and soul of the movie. His portrayal of Hank Deerfield is absolutely captivating. His performance is almost effortless. Hank is a man bearing the weight of his own military service, so much so that his emotions have been repressed. His life is not one filled with joy, but rather guilt and sadness. Everything comes to a head with the discovery of his son's fate.

Do we get all of the facts about his life? No. Is it possible I am misreading him? Possibly, but as presented he can be interpreted different ways. Jones is an actor who carries all of his emotion in his face. Just watch him as he moves through the story. The weight of the world is carried within those facial creases. This character has been through a lot in his life, and it shows. While his emotions may not be carried on his sleeve, the way he goes about everything shows his desire for the truth and closure regarding what happened to his son and his experiences overseas.

The supporting cast is also very good. All of the actors inhabit their characters, they are not just playing a role. Charlize Theron is strong as the helpful detective who is just doing her job, while Sarandon is excellent in her smaller role as the mother. Beyond the actors' abilities, I believe it comes back to the script by Paul Haggis and Mark Boal. It is not a script that sensationalizes, although it very easily could have, thus making the whole exercise just a bit more absurd.

There is bound to be much talk about the final scene. For the record, I thought it was excellent. It ties into the experience that Hank has had throughout the film in his search for closure.

Bottom line. Very good movie. Haggis may not be the strongest visual director, but his work with the actors is where the strength of Elah lies. However you approach it, you will have a reaction to this film. It will be impossible not to feel some sort of emotion when the credits roll. It hit home for me.

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