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IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Tommy Lee Jones, Charlize Theron, Frances Fisher, Susan Sarandon, Jason Patric
Director: Paul Haggis
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.40:1
Studio: Warner Bros.
Features: See Review
Length: 121 Minutes
Release Date: February 19, 2008

ďYouíre a good father. You donít have to prove you loved him. Iím sure he knew.Ē

Film ***1/2

There were more films dealing with the War in Iraq released in 2007 than in any year since the 2003 invasion. However, audiences didnít seem interested in seeing any of them, as all of the films dealing with the war failed at the box office. Having now seen Paul Haggisí In the Valley of Elah, I can honestly say that I find it most unfortunate that this one couldnít find an audience.

At the same time, this is one film that is as unnerving as they come. There is barely a happy moment in the film. From the first scene we feel a sense of dread that will linger throughout the film. In other words, this is a film that would be hard to market commercially.

Haggisí film is unquestionably anti-war, but it doesnít beat you over the head with it frequently like you might expect. The Iraq war more or less serves as the backdrop for a complicated mystery involving one manís search for his son. And yet, after the filmís final sequence, you canít help but be completely shaken.

The film opens with Vietnam vet Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones) receiving a somewhat disturbing phone call. The army has informed him that his son, who was serving in Iraq, has arrived home but has gone M.I.A. from his base in New Mexico. Hank, driving from Tennessee, intends to track down his son and bring him back to the base before he gets into even more trouble. 

After questioning his sonís acquaintances at the base, and running into several other dead ends, Hank files a missing persons report. He enlists the help of a local detective named Sanders (Charlize Theron). He also secretly confiscates his sonís cell phone from his room, as video footage or photographs may provide clues leading up to the disappearance.

It isnít long before Hank receives the very news that no father wants to hear. The remains of his sonís dismembered body are found in an empty lot. Itís a moment that completely devastated me, as it does Hank, and the film then becomes a mystery as to why the murder took place, the end revelation will not be at all what you expect.

Leave it to the gifted writer/director Haggis to craft a story, which was inspired by a real life incident, that works both as a murder mystery and a subtle commentary on the war. Like I said, Haggis doesnít allow his film to beat you over the head with its where it stands on the War in Iraq, but once everything is revealed concerning Hankís son and what did in fact cost him his life, the statements made in the final scenes are most justifiable. I commend Haggis tremendously for making the film in such a manner.

Anchoring the filmís unrelenting effect is the performance from Tommy Lee Jones, who has received a most deserving Academy Award nomination for what I think might be the actorís most remarkable performance to date. It wouldíve been too easy for any actor to overdo the emotions with a role like this, but Jones does something most unique, and nothing I say will do justice to the actual performance. Itís one you simply have to see for yourself.

And Charlize Theron once again illustrates why she is one of the best actresses of our generation. Iím most surprised she wasnít nominated for what is very much her best performance since her oscar win for Monster. She provides her detective character with a great deal of intellect and dedication, making this one of the stronger female roles Iíve seen in quite a while. The film also garners strong supporting work from Jason Patric as a fellow investigator on the case and Susan Sarandon as Hankís wife.

While I was extremely riveted by the film, I canít say that In the Valley of Elah is easy to recommend to everybody. You just have to be aware of the subject matter and the many unnerving moments that the film has. But if itís an intense drama you want, on the same level of Crash, then this is one film you canít afford to miss.

Video ***1/2

This release from Warner boasts an exceptionally fine anamorphic presentation. The picture quality is top notch, from beginning to end, with a touch a grain here and there but nothing too distracting at all. Both day and nighttime sequences appear in flawless quality.

Audio ***

The 5.1 mix does quite a lot with a film that is a dialogue-driven piece more than anything. Several set pieces provide some impressive background sound, and music playback as well. Dialogue delivery is heard terrifically, in addition.

Features ***

While we donít have a commentary track provided, this Warner release does include a fascinating two-part 45-minute making of documentary. The segments are titled ďAfter IraqĒ and ďComing HomeĒ. Also included is an Additional Scene that runs about 7 minutes.

Summary:

In the Valley of Elah is a triumph as both a mystery and as an emotional drama. Paul Haggis continues his streak of thought-provoking cinema, and Tommy Lee Jones delivers the performance of his career. Itís a difficult journey, but one very much worth taking.

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