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USA 2007
Directed by
Paul Haggis
121 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Sharon Hurst
4 stars

In The Valley Of Elah

Synopsis: Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones) is an ex-military policeman living with his wife Joan (Susan Sarandon). Their son, David, has already been dead for 10 years, killed in a helicopter manoeuvre, and now the couple get a call that their son Mike (Jonathan Tucker) has just returned from serving in Iraq, but has gone AWOL. What starts out as a missing persons case rapidly becomes foul play, with three of Mike’s army buddies being under suspicion. At the local police station abutting the military base, Detective Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron) gets involved in helping Hank to get to the bottom of what now seems like his son’s murder.

In The Valley Of Elah works very well on a mystery level, as Hank and Emily delve deeper into what happened on the night of Mike’s death. There are some excellent scenes where Hank studies video footage he has extracted from Mike’s phone to try to get an understanding of the dynamics involved in the boy’s death and these are presented and repeated in a way that leaves the audience guessing until the end about what the real truth is and what really happened in Iraq and on the night Mike was killed.

Beneath its seemingly simple plot line there are many more deep and important themes, not the least being an anti-war stance that is dealt with so subtly it is only after the film is finished that you realise its strength. Haggis, winner of two Oscars for Crash (screenplay and direction) and a nomination for the script of Million Dollar Baby is a fine script writer. With this film he’s again on track, using a wonderfully allegorical title, based upon a Biblical story of David, who, in the valley of Elah, went up against almighty odds in the form of Goliath. Similarly, many young soldiers returning from Iraq are up against daunting odds as they battle post-traumatic stress syndrome which causes some of them to behave in unpredictable and reprehensible ways. The film is in fact asking why a country would send its young people off to fight such a war.

Beyond this moral question there is another major battle being fought and this is Sanders’ battle with the macho, sexist policemen who give her hell as a woman cop. Emily is a single mum just trying to survive but as she gets more involved in this case and works closely with Hank she develops a new-found strength and determination. Theron is a highly gifted actor who always manages to inhabit the great variety of roles she plays. A wonderful working rapport builds up between Sanders and Hank, but, thank heavens, no hackneyed romantic sub-plot creeps in. Jones was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for this role and with his character’s mixture of hang-dog looks, fastidiously militaristic discipline and restrained emotions, it suits him to perfection. The restraint itself assists our identification with the character as we understand that Hank is painfully coming to terms with discovering things about his beloved son that he would never have wished to have known, things that could be perhaps blamed upon the awful effects of having been sent to Iraq. The talented Sarandon has only a small role and yet through her we get to see a softer side of Hank, and also the horrendous time parents must have in dealing with the senseless loss of their kids in a war like this.

In many ways this film is carefully and cleverly underplayed, but watch for the final scene and try to remember what it means, according to Hank, when a flag is accidentally raised upside down. It brings the story to a close with a mighty punch.




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