***** out of *****
“In the Valley of Elah” begins as a murder mystery and ends as a devastating condemnation of war.
The film’s writer and director is Paul Haggis, whose previous film “Crash” was a preachy but well-intentioned plea for tolerance and communication among races.
“Elah” is heartrending and unsparing and disturbing, but it’s not preachy. The film concerns itself with the cost of war on ordinary soldiers and their families, and in so doing it transcends political and ideological barriers. This is a vitally important film at a vitally important time in America’s history.
While “Crash” interwove a multitude of plotlines, “Elah” is essentially the story of Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones), a Vietnam vet who receives word from the army that his son Mike (Jonathan Tucker) has gone AWOL while on leave from the war in Iraq.
At first Hank doesn’t believe Mike would return from Iraq without contacting him, but his disbelief soon gives way to dogged resolve, and he determines to locate his son.
Hank travels to the army base where his son was stationed, but isn’t able to turn up anything that explains Mike’s absence.
Then, local police discover a body in a field across from the military base. The victim has been decapitated, burned and stabbed more than forty times. Eventually military police identify the body as Mike Deerfield. Hank’s quest to determine who murdered his son and why propels the rest of the film.
Like its central character, “Elah” moves carefully and methodically. There is not one wasted shot during the whole movie, with every scene providing nuance and potential contradictions for the overall story. “Elah” may not be a thriller, but viewers with a little patience will find it engaging and suspenseful.
Haggis also elicits remarkable (and Oscar-worthy) performances from Jones and Charlize Theron, who plays a local cop aiding Hank in his search for answers.
Jones is an actor of enormous skill, and the best parts of his performance as Hank Deerfield are silent. There are numerous scenes where Haggis simply lets the camera sit and watch Hank as he thinks; that Jones is able to convey the decency and intellect beneath Hank’s composed exterior proves just how good of an actor he is.
Then there’s Theron, whose character Emily Sanders, provides some balance to Hank’s stoicism. Emily is ballsy and tough, but she’s not as emotionally closed off as Hank. The scene where as she lies with her sleeping son after hearing about Mike’s murder is heartbreaking.
There is resolution at the end of “Elah,” but no redemption, no happy ending. How could there be? The film’s ending may be downbeat, but it’s also honest; it doesn’t let you off the hook. “In the Valley of Elah” will linger in your memory long after you have left the theater.