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In the Valley of Elah (2007)
In the Valley of Elah is a 2007 film written and directed by Paul Haggis, starring Tommy Lee Jones, Charlize Theron, and Susan Sarandon. The film’s title refers to the Biblical valley where the battle between David and Goliath is said to have taken place. Paul Haggis's In The Valley of Elah is based on actual events, although the characters' names and locations have been changed. The screenplay was inspired by journalist Mark Boal's "Death and Dishonor," an article about the murder case published in Playboy magazine in 2004. It portrays a military father's search for his son and, after finding his body, subsequent hunt for his son's killers. The film explores themes including the Iraq war, abuse of prisoners, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) following active combat. The film tells the story of war veteran Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones), his wife Joan (Susan Sarandon) and their search for their son Mike (Jonathan Tucker). A soldier recently returned from Iraq, Mike has suddenly gone missing. Deerfield's investigation is aided by a police detective (Charlize Theron), who becomes personally involved in the case. They find Mike's body, mutilated and burned.
Elah is set in late 2004, when previously pro-war segments of the population started seeing cracks in the official flag-waving rhetoric, and ugly rumors started flying about what was actually going on Over There. Haggis' hard-boiled script -- closely based on Mark Boal's harsh, eye-opening article, 'Death and Dishonor,' published in Playboy in 2004 -- takes the form not of a war film but of a mystery, hiding its disquieting revelations in a familiar structure. Retired military policeman Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones) finds out that his son Mike (Jonathan Tucker, from Haggis' short-lived TV show The Black Donnellys), currently serving in Iraq, went AWOL not long after coming home on R&R. Having already lost his other son to combat in Afghanistan, and convinced he's getting some sort of runaround from the army, Hank hops in his winded old pickup and heads to Mike's base looking for answers.
The structure of what follows could be taken straight from most any televised crime dramas. There's an onion-skin unlayering of truths about Mike and his squad, parsed out with an extra lashing of drama by the slow decoding of some mysterious combat-scene videos recorded on a cell phone Hank finds in Mike's room. The mood is appropriately somber, but leavened with the occasionally stab at humor. We even have a local detective, a tough but vulnerable single mom (played in a straightforward manner by a slightly too-glamorous Charlize Theron) looking to prove herself, to grudgingly help Hank out. The villains are not so clearly defined here, though, with everyone keeping quiet about everything happening in Iraq and the spiritual toll it's taking on the men coming back.
Haggis has come a long way as a filmmaker since 2004's Crash, learning to keep his more sprawling and melodramatic impulses under control; with the possible exception of the portentous title, taken from the Biblical valley where David faced off with Goliath. His script sticks close to the source article, keeping many of its most vivid details of military life, holding fictional additions to a minimum, and focusing on telling the same tough truths about war and soldiers. Even the police investigation scenes feel fresh and original.
There's hardly any fat in Elah, nearly every scene is snapped off with clipped professionalism by a crisply-performing cast and a director who seems to have learned a few tricks from his frequent collaborator in tough minimalism, Clint Eastwood (for whom this film was originally a vehicle). Roger Deakins' wintry, bleached-out cinematography neatly matches Jones' scraped-dry delivery and the generally bleak and unsentimental tone. Needless to say, Jones does titanic work here as the proud, working-class vet with his neatly creased slacks and courteous demeanor who begins to crack as the awful truth becomes clear. His final act in this achingly sad film is one of the most poignant expressions of betrayed patriotism ever to hit American theaters.
The DVD includes one deleted scene and several making-of featurettes.
How green is his valley?
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