In the Valley of Elah Review
Tommy Lee Jones has become quite the seasoned talent. He has never failed to bring life to some of the most unusual roles, in diverse movies ranging from Seagal's Under Siege to Oliver Stone's JFK. Recently I've enjoyed his more energetic, action-orientated affairs, like The Missing and The Hunted (where he got to return to the Kali knife fighting techniques he learned for Under Siege) but his true mettle has been tested in his last three big vehicles - a trilogy of sorts, as it marks his first real dramatic efforts in the twilight of his career. It started with the superior Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, then we had No Country for Old Men (a fantastic film, marred only by a disappointing final act) and finally In the Valley of Elah.
Hank Deerfield is a retired Military Police Sergeant, who gets a call in the middle of the night telling him that his son has gone AWOL upon returning from Iraq. After his first son died in battle, he is determined to find his second, and drives down to the Army base to find out what happened. What starts out as just a bunch of simple enquiries soon turns into a full-blown investigation as, since the Army and two state police units are caught up in a cross-jurisdictional palaver, he appears to be the only one determined to get to the truth. Teaming up with weary Detective Emily Saunders, who is perpetually undermined as a women, and taunted for apparently hiking up the career ladder by bedding the Chief of the Department, they set about trying to get to the bottom of things.
In the Valley of Elah has plenty of surprises in store for those who haven't had the story spoiled by every other review out there. It's a mystery, a drama, and something of a political commentary on the effects of war through the eyes of the people back home. It's not quite as in-your-face as something like Home of the Brave, or as corny in its patriotism, this is a much more honest, small affair - with a consequently bigger impact. Everything from Tommy Lee Jones' raising of the flag to the slow deciphering of the photos and videos captured by on his absent son's mobile allows you to absorb what is happening in this world without feeling overwhelmed by it. It's a Paul 'Crash' Haggis movie, so most people are going to expect a lot, but what he provides here is much more small-scale and authentic - it's not a broad-sweeping picture, but instead a snapshot with which you can extrapolate and get a true feeling for what is going on, perhaps even for the very price of war itself.
Tommy Lee Jones is on superb form as well, but to be honest I have come to expect nothing less from this particular veteran. He is captivating whenever on-screen, the lines on his face making him convincing in a role of this nature, where he gets embrace the experienced Military Police investigator persona and bring to it kind of a modern-day Sherlock Holmes. He's not quite CSI's Gil Grissom, but there are distinct comparisons, and he manages to play it with brooding passion and despair but predominant clinical detachment - it's a complex, powerful roles, underplayed to its best and absolutely superb to engage the viewer.
Charlize Theron is not unaccustomed to dressing down for a role, given her lead in Monster, but it is rare that we get to see this supermodel-esque actress look just plain normal, and she looks at the better for it, all the more beautiful. Her character plays perfectly opposite Jones' retired investigator, with plenty of hard-knocks schooling as it becomes more and more apparent that she could learn a lot from this guy, and that - in turn - maybe she would earn his respect and friendship. These two leads carry the whole movie (although it is mostly Jones' show), and everybody else largely pads out the scenery, from Narc's Jason Patric to Susan Sarandon, Spiderman's James Franco and No Country For Old Men's Josh Brolin. They are big, recognisable character actors, with mere cameos here, and most of them are wasted. Still, Oscar-nominated Tommy Lee Jones is enough to take you on this two-and-a-half-hour voyage and he owns this movie, arguably more so than any of the other instalments in his latest twilight 'trilogy'.
In the Valley of Elah may be too pedestrian for some people's liking, may give a way too little, too slowly, like you're on a slow morphine drip, but this mysterious exploration into the psyche of a young, brave soldier in the heart of hell, is quite intriguing if you are willing to be patient with it. And in taking its time, holding on to its attention to detail, the message is far more potent, the significance far harder to brush away as you might with your standard Hollywood war affair. Quiet but powerful, In the Valley of Elah comes recommended.