In the Valley of Elah
Directed By: Paul Haggis
Starring: Tommy Lee Jones, Charlize Theron, Susan Sarandon, Jason Patric, James Franco
As In the Valley of Elah opens, Military veteran Hank Deerfield (Jones) receives a phone call informing him that his son, Mike, recently returned from Iraq, has gone AWOL. He decides to travel to his son's base and find out what is going on. Upon arrival, he is treated respectfully by his son's military comrades and dismissively by the local police department. He begins to investigate independently, visiting a number of his son's former haunts. When a set of scattered human remains found in a field are identified as his son's, he convinces a local police detective Emily Sanders (Theron) that military investigators are not necessarily telling them the whole story. Hank eventually inspires her to investigate further even though the rest of her squad would just as soon let the Military Police handle it rather than challenge their jurisdiction and add to their own workload. Their investigation proceeds down a number of surprising paths and a few blind alleys before uncovering the terrible truth about exactly what happened to Mike.
Adapted from the real events surrounding the death of Army Specialist Richard T. Davis, In the Valley of Elah is clearly meant to be a cautionary tale about the consequences of sending young men into war zones and a plea for those who send them to live up to their responsibilities once they come home. Director and co-writer Haggis resists straying too far into polemic territory by sticking to a fairly straightforward procedural structure. Rather than stopping the movie in its tracks by placing expository dialog in the mouths of his characters spelling out these themes, Haggis allows his actors to internalize them. I do not recall any specific reference to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the film. The subtext of the grief and horror experienced by the parents played by Tommy Lee Jones and Susan Sarandon as they gradually learn the details of their son's demise contains every point the film intends to make.
Despite this restraint, there are still elements that feel a bit heavy handed, including two scenes involving the biblical reference to David and Goliath that gives the film its title, and the final scene in the movie. Additionally, Emily's co-workers in the civilian police are portrayed as more or less a bunch of Barney Fifes with the addition of a chauvinistic mean streak that seems more than a little clichéd. The fact that the film's main plot and one significant sub-plot illustrate two of the most extreme and gruesome consequences of PTSD imaginable makes it seem a bit hopeless and unbalanced, but this makes sense in the context of a procedural since military and civilian law enforcement would only be called in to deal with the worst case scenarios.
Placing the thematic context of a film in the emotional subtext of its performances is asking a lot of the actors appearing in it, and the cast for In the Valley of Elah is up to the challenge. Jones in particular provides a nuanced take on the sympathetic but far from perfect father. The fact that Hank, who works as a gravel hauler but served in the Military Police Corps, is constantly noticing things that Emily is not creates a nice prickly dynamic between the two characters which Jones and Theron play off effectively. This pays off in later scenes when the competent and efficient Frank, after being right about nearly everything through the first half of the film, has his world turned inside-out by possibilities he could not imagine and had dismissed out of turn.
Technically, the film uses a desaturated palette on top of an intentionally unglamorous production design for a somewhat dry and dreary appearance during the daytime sequences. Most of the nighttime scenes look like they were really shot at night, with deep black levels and carefully considered light sources for an overall sense of prosaic realism. The film is also unusually grainy for a modern production.
The 16:9 enhanced 2.4:1 transfer represents the film's somewhat grainy muted palette fairly well. The grain sometimes gives the video compression algorithm fits, but this is not a big issue from a reasonable viewing distance. I saw no significant signs of ringing along high contrast edges
The film's Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track offers a fairly subdued mix that is in keeping with the visual approach of the cinematography. Surrounds normally provide light ambient effects and support for the score. Most of the war zone sequences are shown through the medium of recovered cell-phone video for which a wildly aggressive sound mix would be unrealistic, although there are a few sequences when things come to life. Overall the audio presentation is subtle and effective, which is completely appropriate for the material. Alternate language Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks are available in French and Spanish.
The first extra on the disc is In the Valley of Elah Dcoumentary, which runs 42 minutes and 59 seconds if "Play All" is selected. It is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo sound with available English, French, and Spanish subtitles. The documentary, directed by Dawn Kuisma, is broken up into two segments titled In the Valley of Elah: After Iraq and In the Valley of Elah: Coming Home. There is no logical reason to break it up this way, and it probably had something to do with contractual obligations for featurettes more than a half hour in length. I would definitely recommend watching with the "Play All" feature. This is an above average behind the scenes documentary shot primarily on handheld video cameras. It features lots of revealing behind the scenes footage ranging from pre-production meetings to actual on-set footage during the shooting of certain scenes. In addition, the origins of the film are explored through discussion of PTSD in general and the life and death of Richard Davis, the soldier whose story inspired the film.
Interview participants include Military Advisor Jim Dever; Production Assistant Tyler Standen; Paul Haggis; Actors Mechad Brooks, Victor Wolf, Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin, Charlize Theron, Susan Sarandon, and Zoe Kazan; Actor/veterans Jake McLaughlin, Wes Chatham, and Sean Huze; Parents of Richard Davis Lanny Davis and Remy Davis; Art Director Greg Hooper; Extras Casting Coordinator Eleanor Bravo; Dancer/Extras Tanya Hernandez, Donielle Carnelian, and Erica Finley; and Co-Producer Dana Maksimovich. In addition, candid on set footage of Cinematographer Roger Deakins and Actor John Tucker is accompanied by subtitles identifying them.
Next up, a feature called Additional Scene is actually a whole deleted subplot consisting of several scenes involving Jones' character searching for his son's ex-girlfriend whose name was "Jennifer Lopez". It runs 7:48 and is presented in 4:3 Letterboxed video. Some shots have completed special effects and some do not. The subplot takes the film into a whole additional direction for which it does not really have adequate time dealing with severely wounded soldiers, but it does explain why Jones' character was flipping through a phone book in a diner in a scene from the finished movie.
In addition, when the disc is first spun up, the following skippable promotional spots play, all with Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo sound:
- Darfur Now theatrical trailer - 4:3 letterbox (2:19)
- State of Play TV series DVD trailer - 4:3 full frame (1:00)
- Pu-239 TV movie DVD trailer - 4:3 letterbox (1:46)
- Rendition DVD Trailer - 16:9 Letterboxed (2:25)
The disc is packaged in a standard Amaray-style case with no inserts.
In the Valley of Elah is an effective murder mystery procedural drama highlighting issues associated with young men returning from combat zones featuring an outstanding performance from Tommy Lee Jones. It is presented on DVD with a transfer limited only by its ability to present natural film grain in standard definition and a subtle but effective Dolby Digital 5.1 audio mix. Extras include a very good documentary on the film's production and origins as well as a collection of deleted scenes representing a justifiably excised subplot.