‘In the Valley of Elah’ movie review: Tommy Lee Jones excels in military crime drama

A Vietnam vet examines the circumstances surrounding the disappearance of his son in Paul Haggis’ In the Valley of Elah, an investigative drama that doesn’t quite reach the aspirations of its true-life story. 

Film has many of the strengths and weaknesses of Peter Berg’s The Kingdom; while it works effectively as both a CSI-like police procedural as well as a more esoteric meditation on war and military, the two don’t fully mix in the end. 

Themes are bluntly hammered home, but Haggis, the director of Crash and writer of Million Dollar Baby, isn’t one known for his subtlety.

Tommy Lee Jones stars as Hank Deerfield, a truck driver and military man who receives a call that tells him his son Mike has gone AWOL since returning from Iraq; that doesn’t sound right, so he leaves wife Joan (Susan Sarandon) behind and makes the journey to Fort Rudd to investigate. 

As neither the military officials nor the local police seem to offer much help or information, Hank begins his own investigation, starting with recovered video from Mike’s cell phone, which features increasingly disturbing images from his tour of duty. 

Eventually, he receives some help from detective Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron), who initially rebuffed him. During the course of the film, we can tangibly feel action sequences and ironic twists that could only come from the pen of a writer, as well as the unfortunate details that must be true. 

The ending simply doesn’t work in relation to the rest of the film, ignoring the fact that it stays true to the reality of the case. Haggis was directing a pretty good murder-mystery, and had some incisive things to say about the military and war along the way, until real-life, which doesn’t always make sense, overtakes the story and provides an ultimately unsatisfactory ending. 

And then a mushy Annie Lennox song plays over the end credits, furthering my view that the director had lost control of his film.

Jones is terrific in one of those roles that seems to define his persona; other actors have less to do, though Jason Patric and Josh Brolin make an impact as cogs in the bureaucratic machine. Sarandon is effective in her few scenes but ultimately feels wasted.

Outside of Jones’ performance, Roger Deakins’ cinematography is the film’s greatest asset.

Title is derived from the biblical battle between David and Goliath, a story which Hank tells Emily’s young son.


Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

One Response

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *