In The Valley Of Elah


Directed by: Paul Haggis
Written by:Paul Haggis
Starring: Tommy Lee Jones, Charlize Theron, Jason Patric, Susan Sarandon, James Franco, Josh Brolin
Released: February 28, 2008
Grade: A-

In The Valley Of Elah begins with a phone call.  Retired army man Hank Deerfield (Jones) picks up the receiver and is told by a military official in New Mexico that his son, Mike, has gone AWOL.  He hasn’t been seen on base since last Saturday.  This comes as a shock to Hank and his wife Joan (Sarandon).  They didn’t even know that their son was back in the U.S. – they thought he was still on a tour of duty in Iraq.

Hank drives from his home in Texas to the base in New Mexico to find out what’s going on.  He suspects something is wrong – it’s not like his son to run off and not contact anyone.  Hank’s worst thoughts are confirmed when Mike’s body is found in scrub off an isolated road.  The body was almost unidentifiable – it had been set on fire and cut into several pieces.

As the reality sets in, Hank finds himself on a pursuit for the truth.  Who could have done this to his son?  He finds a sympathetic friend in a young police detective named Emily Sanders (Theron).  Not happy with the investigation being conducted by the army police, Emily and Hank do their own sleuthing.  They realise there were inconsistencies in the witness statements and problems with the way the crime scene was examined.

Their quest for answers won’t be easy however.  The army police don’t like being “shown up” by a retired officer and an inexperienced police detective.  Furthermore, there are those who know the truth that are doing their best to throw Emily and Hank off their trail.

We’ve all seen these who-done-it thrillers before.  Most of the time, a brainy detective picks up on a bunch of clues (that no one else sees) and solves the crime.  I’m often critical that it’s just too easy.  In The Valley Of Elah is a little different and this is what elevates it above those predictable thrillers that I just spoke of.  There are a few “red herrings” and Emily and Hank make their fair share of mistakes along the way.  You can sense that Emily is a little out of her depth and that Hank sometimes acts with his grieving heart instead of his head.  They’re an interesting duo.

The writer-director of the film is Paul Haggis.  Haggis is one of the best screenwriters in the business today.  In the last four years, he’s penned the scripts for Million Dollar Baby, Crash, Letters From Iwo Jima, Flags Of Our Fathers and Casino Royale.  He’s a very talented craftsman and this film further solidifies this reputation.  Haggis avoids standard clichés and has a knack for writing plausible dialogue.

In The Valley Of Elah earned Tommy Lee Jones an Academy Award nomination for best actor (he lost to Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood).  It’s a terrific performance from Jones and having recently praised him No Country For Old Men, I’m convinced that he’s in the best form of his career.  He never over acts and keeps things simple.  Jones is a class act.

We don’t usually see a lot of quality movies in the post-Oscars slump but here we have an exception.  It’s a good one.