Its evocative title refers to the place in Israel where David defeated Goliath at the behest of King Saul 3,000 years ago. Writer/director Paul Haggis (Crash) uses the biblically grounded metaphor as an all-encompassing touchstone for the desperate plight of physically and psychologically wounded Iraq War soldiers returning home.
Vietnam War vet Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones) is a retired Army Sergeant who hauls gravel for a living in Monroe, Tennessee. Having lost his oldest son, a soldier, in a helicopter training accident, Hank leaves immediately for Fort Rudd, New Mexico upon learning that his younger son Mike (Jonathan Tucker) has gone missing since returning from a tour of duty in Iraq. Believing the soldier is AWOL, Mike’s platoon superiors are nonplussed by his father’s appearance until Mike’s stabbed, dismembered and charred body is found on a contested piece of jurisdiction between the military base and a civilian street. Apathy and incompetence from military and local police investigators push Hank to act in assembling the truth surrounding his son’s murder.
Local police detective Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron) teeters on succumbing to the lethargic attitude of the male cops that constantly ridicule her. A single mother with a young son, she is lost. Hank identifies Emily’s predicament and knows how to win her over. He approaches her in the same way he shows an immigrant grounds keeper how to fly the American flag right side up lest it give off an international distress warning that America has spiraled beyond our control.
In a flash we see Emily transform from an unsympathetic desk clerk into a caring cop willing to follow Hank’s lead. Theron is nearly unrecognizable at first glance, with her hair pulled tightly back in a short ponytail and lacking make-up she blossoms into an uncompromising detective willing to learn from her mistakes.
In the Valley of Elah takes on the guise of homicide procedural. The carefully painted character study that Paul Haggis smuggles inside the deceptively simple plot form has an Altmanesque egalitarian balance to it. Mike’s four platoon buddies necessarily become the focus of the investigation since they were the last ones to see the soldier alive.
Conversations with their former buddy’s soldierly father enable theme-rich dialogue that cuts to the quick of their feelings about the war. It’s worth noting that Paul Haggis cast real life war vets Wes Chatham and Jake McLaughlin in two pivotal roles. “If you ask me, they should just nuke it and watch it all turn back to dust,” says one of the boys, whose opinion reflects his own self-destructive streak.
What is the war doing to us? What do you do when you realize that everyone in authority is lying? How can we be saved from ourselves? These are a few of the questions the film raises in order to piece together aspects of a war whose effects will be felt long after the last soldier comes home. On top of that, it is executed to perfection. MTW