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Jacqueline Monahan's Movie Reviews

In The Valley Of Elah

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Jacqueline Monahan

In The Valley Of Elah

Las Vegas Round The Clock - http://www.lasvegasroundtheclock.com
Jacqueline Monahan is an English tutor for the GEAR UP program at UNLV.
She is also a consultant for Columbia College Chicago in Adjunct Faculty Affairs
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Elah is the place where Philistine giant Goliath challenged all who would dare to face him. A young boy with a slingshot prevailed against all odds. His name was David. We don’t find out this piece of information until mid-film, some thinking that the title refers to a ravaged area of Iraq. In The Valley of Elah illustrates how the war returns with its soldiers onto American soil with devastating consequences.

Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones) is notified that his son, Mike, (Jonathan Tucker) just back from a tour in Iraq, is AWOL. A retired Army MP himself, Hank sets out on a quest to find his son, convinced of a small misstep on the young man’s part. He’s the kind of guy who keeps his shoes polished, his pants creased, and will still salute military personnel with an unswerving belief in the mission and management of the war.

En route to Ft. Rudd, New Mexico, Hank encounters a U.S. flag flying upside down on the grounds of a school. This so upsets the patriot that he must stop to correct it and advise the immigrant caretaker that it means chaos, a literal distress signal, and the very worst symbol of everything gone awry. That completed, he continues his personal investigation into his son’s disappearance. Deerfield’s face is a map of steely determination and humorless thought processes.

Hank’s wife Joan (Susan Sarandon) is resigned to her husband’s fervor. She has already lost her older son to a military training accident (on U.S. soil) and she is not overly worried about her missing younger son. After all, Hank’s on the case and Mike has already completed his tour of duty in Iraq. He’s home, he’s safe, right?

Lt. Kirklander (Jason Patric) meets with Hank and has him shown his son’s quarters on the military base. There Hank finds and pockets Mike’s cell phone, sensing he will get more information on his own than waiting for the Army. He employs a computer hack to retrieve information, including increasingly disturbing video of his son’s wartime activities.

Hank asks for help from the local police department and is give a stock answer about Army jurisdiction. He’s told this in a weary tone by Detective Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron) who has just finished saying the same thing to an Army wife, worried over her husband’s erratic behavior. Recently returned from Iraq, he’s just drowned the family dog. Sanders can offer no help.

Sanders is the only female detective in a good old boy network. Her boss, Chief Buchwald, (Josh Brolin) sees her as only a woman. Colleagues think she slept her way into the job. She’s also a single mom raising a son. She can’t help Hank, and he has nothing but disdain for her. She’s up against Lt. Kirklander as well in a military vs. police fight for evidential supremacy.

This all changes when a chopped and burned corpse is found in a field; military and police do not vie for jurisdiction, but play hot potato. Sanders proves that the murder occurred within town limits. The body is positively identified as Mike Deerfield and credit card records trace Mike’s steps around town on the last night he was seen.

A grief-stricken Joan demands to see her son, but is kept behind the sterile glass windows of the morgue, upon which she can only rest her hand, while wondering how cold it must be in there. She’s his mother and still has the urge as all mothers do, to keep her child warm. Later, a bitter Joan blames Hank for both her sons’ death, for feeling like they had to prove something to him. Hank does not protest.

Hank begins to have a grudging respect for Sanders. He meets her son (Devin Brochu) while joining them for dinner and even attempts to read him a story, opting instead for the tale of David and Goliath in the valley of Elah. Sanders’ son is named David.

Mike’s cell phone video images of Iraq show disturbing scenes of cruelty, apathy, torture and aggression. Hank follows some leads of his own with the help of Sanders and succeeds in eliminating one suspect. Three more suspects are culled from the base, but are they telling the truth? The investigation continues.

Hard liquor, it seems, can get any soldier to open up and unleash the horrors they’ve seen in measured tones and a matter-of-fact calmness, which makes the information even more unnerving. Hank finds out shocking information in this way from several soldiers who served with his son.

The rest of the film follows Hank’s journey from strong faith in patriotism to shock to acceptance when events unfold. Sanders moves aggressively toward a conclusion, and when she finds one, is as stunned as Hank.

Tommy Lee Jones’s nuanced performance speaks volumes with a raised eyebrow, a glare, and simple, heartfelt pain transforming his face for a moment before recovery.

Susan Sarandon’s few scenes are powerful. Few actresses can summon pure pain and sorrow through the eyes alone the way she can.

Charlize Theron puts her height to good use in standing up to chauvinists of all kinds.
She deglamorizes herself; strong women will root for her. She also produced the film after finding a story and pursuing the rights.

Josh Brolin and Jason Patric are petty bureaucrats and their roles place them as unfortunate impediments to justice, victims of testosterone and regulations.

Look for Frances Fisher in a surprising (and revealing) cameo appearance.

Writer/Director Paul Haggis (Crash) tells a straightforward narrative. His screenplay, written with Mark Boal, is based on actual events. There are some flashbacks, but the story is linear and leads to a simple conclusion. Red herrings might anger those looking for more detailed conspiracies. Stark simplicity is the point.

Who is David and who is Goliath here? Nearly every character qualifies as David. Nearly every institution qualifies as Goliath. Your guess is as good as mine.