In the Valley of Elah (2007)

Directed by: Paul Haggis

Premise: The true story of a retired military police officer (Tommy Lee Jones) who investigates the disappearance of his son, a soldier who has recently returned from Iraq.

What Works: In the Valley of Elah is another knockout film for writer and director Haggis, who is on a recent winning streak with Crash, Million Dollar Baby, Casino Royale, Letters from Iwo Jima, and Flags of Our Fathers. But this is actually a better film than most of those, even superior to Crash in some respects. In the Valley of Elah is masterfully structured. There is no extraneous material and each scene drives the story forward on multiple levels. Like Crash and Flags of Our Fathers, the film deals with what it means to be an American and how our beliefs and perceptions about ourselves and our country contrast with reality. This film explores these conflicts underneath the investigation of the soldier’s disappearance and uses the twists and turns in the case to unveil how everyday racism and sexism and vices such as drug use compromise our heroes. Tommy Lee Jones gives one of the best performances of his career in this film. It’s not flashy but it is highly controlled and carefully staged, and as a retired military man Jones’ character embodies the conflicts of a patriotic man struggling to reconcile his love for his country with growing evidence that the men in his son’s unit had something to do with his disappearance. There are some other standout performances in the film including Charlize Theron as a local police detective and Wes Chatham as a member of the military squad.

What Doesn’t: Although the film is not overtly political, it is essentially an anti-war picture, dealing with what a culture of violence does to human beings. Some audience members may find this at odds with their own ideas about military service and the war and it risks cutting some audience members out, although the whole intent of the film is to question our idealization of military service. 

Bottom Line: In the Valley of Elah is a terrific and thoughtful film. It is not an easy film to watch for visceral and ideologically disturbing reasons, but the film’s superior craft and its willingness to go into taboo territory and to intelligently question some of our most basic beliefs about ourselves and our country makes it a great work of subversive cinema. 

 

Episode: N/A (October 21, 2007)