In the Valley of Elah
a film review
by Jeanne Powell (c) 2007
available on dvd
Director/writer Paul Haggis distinguishes himself with his latest film, In the Valley of Elah, starring Tommy Lee Jones and Charlize Theron and Susan Sarandon.
Haggis’ film unfolds as a murder mystery, giving rise to grief, anger and edgy humor. Dialogue is spare and lean. The film is free of the abrasiveness which characterized his earlier film, Crash. However, the impact of Elah is greater.
Tommy Lee Jones gives his richest performance yet as retired Army sergeant Hank Deerfield, hailing from that part of America mostly invisible to us — highway motels, strippers working outside military bases, whiskey drunk from dixie cups. Gone is the wisecracking federal cop in pursuit of an elusive fugitive in U.S. Marshals, as well as the arrogant attorney opposite Susan Sarandon in The Client. Stoic and polite, the retired MP still knows what he knows in Elah, and his sarcasm surfaces readily when incompetence and politics hinder the investigation of his son’s murder. Safely back from the front in Iraq, and he is killed on U.S. soil. This grieving father will not be stonewalled.
Charlize Theron continues to impress by playing against type and seeking gritty roles in films like Monster and North Country. In this film Emily Sanders is a single mother intent on keeping the best-paying job she can find in her town -- police detective under the supervision of her former lover -- despite the toll it takes on her emotionally.
In a supporting role as Army wife and mother Joan Deerfield, Susan Sarandon shines playing a character immensely different from the women in White Palace, Bull Durham and Thelma & Louise. She insists on seeing her son’s body, which the military and her husband try to prevent. Taking precautions, the Army requires her to view his battered remains through a closed window, and a chair is placed behind her in case she needs it. Standing still as a soldier on duty, she gazes through the window, speaks softly and gestures once; and we are moved beyond words.
Investigating the Iraq vet’s death takes us through strange and unsanitary landscapes. How do we prepare these youths for their tour of duty in Iraq? What do we do for them when they return, so fresh from the battlefield that they still hear the screams? Experiencing how this father handles these revelations is a lesson and a challenge for us all as we approach the election year 2008.
Causes Jeanne Powell Supports
Union of Concerned Scientists, VVAW (Vietnam Veterans Against War), Doctors Without Borders, Waterkeeper Alliance, PSR (Physicians for Social Responsibility...