In The Valley Of Elah

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[Film Review]

When SPC Mike Deerfield (Jonathan Tucker) goes AWOL soon after returning from a tour of duty in Iraq, his father, (Tommy Lee Jones), a retired,  career military man, decides to join the search.

Bidding adieu to his anguished wife (Susan Sarandon), Hank drives halfway cross the country from Tennessee to New Mexico in a panic, fearful because their only other child, a Marine, previously perished in a helicopter crash while serving in the 82nd Airborne.

Upon his arrival at the base, he’s disappointed to discover that the officer in charge of missing persons (Jason Patric) is an inept pencil-pusher with little street savvy. Looking for clues on his own, Hank finds himself frequently frustrated by the less than cooperative and deliberately misleading members of Mike’s unit.

Ultimately, his rescue mission turns into a recovery effort after a charred body is found chopped to pieces and scattered around an empty lot. Although the military brass assumes jurisdiction and quickly dub Mike’s murder drug-related in a rush to judgment, former MP Hank is savvy enough to smell a bureaucratic cover-up.

Next, he contacts the local police, but they are simply willing to leave the matter in the hands of the Army. Fortunately, he does find one sympathetic ear in the department, that of Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron), a detective generally assigned inconsequential cases by her condescending, sexist colleagues. As a single-mom with a young son, she’s able to identify with a grieving parent’s need to know exactly who killed his boy, and why.

So, the two team-up to fill in the pieces of the grisly puzzle, and that determined effort is meticulously chronicled in In the Valley of Elah, the first feature directed by Paul Haggis since his Oscar-winning outing in Crash. Unusually devoid of urgency for what’s been billed as a crime thriller, the film has actually been crafted more as an indictment of the American invasion of Iraq than as your typical whodunit.

For although our intrepid protagonists retrace Mike’s steps to strip clubs for a little gratuitous nudity and other staples associated with the genre, gradual revelations about Abu Ghraib-level abuses by the suspected soldiers lay blame overseas, since ensuing post-traumatic stress disorder seems to have triggered the attack. It’s hard to argue with the facts in the film, as they are based on a real-life incident involving a vet named Richard Davis who was similarly butchered and burned beyond recognition by buddies from his own unit briefly after their arrival back in the States.

Other than its annoying profusion of red herrings, this tortoise-paced picture is noteworthy only for squandering a talented cast of Academy Award-winners in service of delivering an antiwar message. Susan Sarandon has been reduced here to little more than hand-wringing and putting on a terminally-pained countenance, while Tommy Lee Jones reprises his trademark no nonsense, take charge persona, except he looks a little silly with nobody to order around.

Finally, Charlize Theron’s pedestrian performance as a glum gumshoe is so unremarkable as to make you wonder
whether you’re really watching the same actress responsible for Monster and so many other memorable screen performances.

Postwar is hell!

Fair (1.5 stars). Rated R for sexuality, nudity, profanity, violence and disturbing content.
Running time: 121 minutes. Studio: Warner Independent


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