According to the Bible, the Valley of Elah is the setting for the legendary tale of where David felled the giant Goliath. In a letter to subscribers of Landmark Theatres Film Club, Paul Haggis writes, “What the Bible doesn’t tell us is how many boys the King sent into the valley before him. How many stories of brave young men were never told?” which transitions into, “ How many aren’t being told today?”
In the Valley of Elah is inspired by Mark Boal’s Playboy article, "Death and Dishonor,” which detailed Lanny Davis’ search for the truth when his son, Specialist Richard Davis, just home from Iraq, went AWOL from the Army and was found murdered.
In the film, retired MP Hank Deerfield is notified that his son Mike is AWOL. Hank heads to New Mexico to investigate, but the Army and local police are dragging their feet. He presses on and finally enlists the help of Detective Emily Sanders, a single mom treated poorly by the boys’ club at the station. Mike provides his father some cryptic clues in the form of video files on a damaged cell phone.
The film is powered by the brilliance audiences have grown accustomed to expect from Tommy Lee Jones. Without any flash or theatrics, he resonates authenticity as a man with a mission, as a father missing a son. I expect to see his name once award nominations are announced.
The strength of In the Valley of Elah is that, although it is a compelling mystery, Haggis is also able to examine larger ideas and themes about the complete costs of war. The tally usually reported is in dollars and cents, but the ledger contains more than money. The debt also includes an emotional toll that never gets accounted for, which is paid by the men and women who not only fight for us, but kill for us. They are thrown into complete chaos where even the right decisions can be tough burdens to bear, and after doing what it takes to survive the madness of war, we ask them to slip back into their lives like it was as simple as flipping a switch. They and their families sacrifice more than they are given credit for.
Haggis says, “I have the same hope for [Elah] that I had for Crash — that it'll stir debate, that people will walk out of the theater arguing and talking about what's happening in America.”
I hope it will get people to do more than talk.