In the Valley of Elah - Cinema Review

‘In the Valley of Elah’ sees ‘Crash’ director Paul Haggis returning to a familiar premise as he boils down the complex issue of the Iraq war and its implications to apply to just a few individuals in order to examine its lasting impact on a people and a nation. This time around his focus is retired Military Policeman Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones), his son Mike (Jonathan Tucker) and those that have some sort of connection to the two of them.

As ‘Elah…’ opens we are quickly introduced to the magnetic Jones as Deerfield, searching for his offspring who has been declared A.W.O.L at some point since his return from Iraq. Haggis has once again assembled a decent (if not as good as Crash’ collection) ensemble cast of talented actors with Susan Sarandon, Charlize Theron, Jason Patric, Josh Brolin and James Franco filling the noteworthy vacancies. It is here however, that Haggis’ film hits its first snag; Jones, in his OSCAR nominated role is so engaging that Haggis cannot draw the camera off him for long enough to allow any attention to rest on any of the other characters. Franco, talented though he is, is on-screen for around 60 seconds, Brolin only slightly more so, while Patric, as the face of the military’s suspicious vagueness is given little more than formula lines to spout at Theron and, on one occasion, Sarandon. The two aforementioned female roles provide the main support for Jones but even they fail to ignite. Theron’s character is particularly frustrating; a mysterious past is hinted at but quickly and conveniently forgotten to further the story. Instead she is reduced to being the kind of cop who when faced with an obstacle simply needs to ask somebody for something in a slightly different way in order to overcome it.

Despite the fact that the Jones’ superb turn as Deerfield may well be the reason for many of the film’s shortcomings it is unequivocally its greatest asset. Deerfield is a craggy rock, solid, yet showing subtle signs of wear. Jones imbues his character with signs of inward hurt we have never before seen in his repertoire, drawing the audience in with pure emotion and integrity. His journey to find his son is both painful and enlightening, both for himself and his audience.

It is this very enlightenment, however, which finally ensures Elah’s status as ‘good’ rather than ‘great’. Instead of employing a touch of hesitancy in judgement as a more able director would (indeed as a more able Haggis did in Crash) Haggis aims straight for the jugular, ramming his own moral conclusion down his audience's throat without any due concern for their own considerations on the subject. The result is a preachy, politicised conclusion which smacks more of ‘Farenheit 9/11’ than it does of ‘Crash’.

If ‘Elah…’ does one thing it shows that Crash was certainly not Harris at his most preachy and that that film showed touches of a skilled, tactful, director in his execution of a difficult subject. Aside from this it makes a decent attempt at being a modern moral drama examining the ‘unfashionable’ family-based consequences of the Iraq war. For all its perseverance on the subject however, and not from want of trying, the only person who emerges from this valley with acclaim and appreciation is Tommy Lee Jones who has a chance of slaying Daniel Day Lewis’ goliath of a performance at the OSCARS come February.


  1. Interesting!! I actually really liked this. I think because it has much do with what I done at uni military wise this film hit a real spot with me. I'm interested in the effects of combat on those involved and this did have a good go at explaining it to the unknowing I also never really took much notice of Theron before I saw this either. I liked her performance and it turned me over to her in Monster.
    I mentioned this to several others who went and saw it and were impressed.

  2. I really need to go back and see this again. You're not the first person to tell me that it deserves a higher rating and I normally love Tommy Lee Jones. Must get hold of the DVD.