Before going to Iraq, a soldier would not likely even think this, let alone say it out loud in any serious manner. The times have changed though and eyes have seen more than any one pair should. Take Jo Anne’s husband for instance. He’s just returned from Iraq to Fort Rudd, New Mexico, a town built around its army base. You might think this would make Jo Anne very happy but, much to her dismay, this is just not the case. Instead, she doesn’t feel she still knows this changed man. When she goes to the police after he snaps the family dog’s neck as punishment for biting, no one listens. Instead, they snicker at her. She is enraged but her anger is not enough to rattle any one out of their apathetic trance. Despite there being a clear need for Jo Anne’s husband to get help, there just isn’t anything to be done. He’s just another returning soldier whose mental stability has been fried in combat. This is the side of America that is not often seen – a population exhausted by the weight of the war, be that by supporting it or questioning it or participating in it. And while the fighting is taking place overseas, writer/director Paul Haggis’ “In the Valley of Elah” aims to show America’s eyes what’s been happening in their homes while their focus was elsewhere.
“In the Valley of Elah” is Haggis’s first time directing since his Best Picture winning “Crash”. In the time since then, he has gone on to work on the screenplays for “Casino Royale” and “Flags of Our Fathers”. The experience seems to have taught him some valuable lessons about subtlety. While “Crash” was intense and moving, it was also contrived and convenient. Concessions were made for the bigger emotional impact but the pay off was worth the trouble. “In the Valley of Elah” does not need to resort to gimmicks to make its mark. Instead, the events unfold like any good mystery, where the pieces come together to reveal that what you’ve trying to figure out all along is really just a fraction of what’s really going on. This particular mystery begins when Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones) gets a call from the Fort Deer army base, informing him that his son has gone missing after returning from active duty. Hank has no helpful information as he didn’t even know his son had come back. It becomes clear pretty quickly that something foul has happened and that Hank didn’t know his son very well at all. Yet as he gets to know his son through the clues he comes across while searching for him, Hank realizes that he knows just as little about how the army has changed as he does his son.
“In the Valley of Elah” is able to make understated commentary about the mental and emotional burden of the Iraq war thanks mostly to Haggis’ direction of his stars, Jones and Charlize Theron. Theron is a single mother and a detective who struggles daily to prove that a woman can make just as good a detective as her sloppy male counterparts. She braves the testosterone that beats down on her from all sides but it is Deerfield’s arrival that shows her how fighting against oppression is taking away from her work. Jones achieves a similar effect on Theron’s performance. He is so strong, so internally tormented and still so unfaltering despite the overwhelming evidence that is chipping away at his impression of his great American hero of a son, that Theron cannot help but step up her game as an actress to avoid looking bland in front of the veteran. As Deerfield, Jones is the silent, proud father and husband. He’s the kind of man who cannot be around a lady while simply wearing an undershirt. He is an old-fashioned army boy in a world where he can watch unscrambled video image from a digital camera his son carried with him in Iraq. All the seedy revelations he is discovering must be made proper again and resolving his two conflicting minds becomes the challenge he needs to overcome in order to find both his son and his peace of mind. Jones is not just up for this challenge; he owns it.
With its simple tone and steady pace, “In the Valley of Elah” laments the loss of America’s blanketed support and gusto for a war that was meant to protect their way of life and freedom. It is not so much a movie designed to criticize the decision to go to war in the first place. Haggis is too smart to give that tired argument. Instead, it is an expression of grief for the damage the war has weathered on the country, its citizens and the principals that it was initially meant to protect.
Review by Joseph Bélanger