In The Valley of Elah
Review by Jack Foley
TOMMY Lee Jones seems to be on a roll at the moment. Having shone as part of the Coens’ latest ensemble, No Country For Old Men, he now delivers one of the performances of his career in Paul Haggis’ In The Valley of Elah.
The actor plays retired military policeman Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones), a staunch patriot, who comes to question his loyalties while searching for his missing son (Jonathan Tucker), a soldier who has mysteriously vanished after coming home from Iraq.
Enlisting the help of a gutsy single mother and detective (Charlize Theron), Deerfield quickly learns that his son has been murdered and sets about uncovering the guilty parties, butting heads with both local law officials and the army’s top brass in the process.
For his keenly anticipated follow-up to surprise Oscar winner Crash, Haggis has assembled another top-drawer cast for a project that takes a look at the effects of the conflict in Iraq on the people back home. But it’s Jones who shines as the implacable father who is forced to confront his own regret and despair over encouraging a loved one to serve a country that no longer stands for the same values he once held dear.
His journey towards this realisation provides the film with its moral compass and makes it all the more absorbing as a result. For at its heart, Haggis’s latest is a sombre personal drama that contains elements of intelligent social comment and crime thriller.
Strong, too, are supporting turns from Charlize Theron, as the detective who comes to respect Deerfield’s old-school values, and Susan Sarandon, as his wife, whose quiet despair at the loss of her two sons to the military is brilliantly and heartbreakingly realised in a shattering moment inside the morgue with her husband.
If In The Valley of Elah works best as a human drama, it also has plenty to recommend it on other levels. The whodunnit aspect of the story – which was inspired by a Playboy article – is engrossing and well concealed, while the observations on America are astute without ever being preachy. This isn’t a film that sets out to manipulate but rather to show how a country and – more importantly – its people can misguidedly follow an unsavoury course.
And aside from the three excellent leads, there’s strong support from the likes of Jason Patric, Frances Fisher and Josh Brolin to add depth to even the smallest of roles.
Haggis, for his part, confirms that he remains one of the foremost screenwriters of his day, as well as a damn fine director (and that Crash was no fluke). But it’s Jones who emerges with the majority of the plaudits, whose searing performance has somewhat shamefully been overlooked by a lot of the most recent awards ceremonies.
Running time: 2hrs 2mins
UK DVD Release Date: May 26, 2008