In The Valley Of Elah

In The Valley Of Elah

****

Reviewed by: Chris

The Vale of Elah is the place where, in the Bible, David defeats Goliath. This complex metaphor runs throughout the film. It is almost, if not quite, too clever for its own good.

In spite of a wealth of talent, our story takes two hours to investigate the death of someone we barely know. It looked tasty for the first 20 minutes. After that, it can seem well past its sell-by date. My attention span would have wandered out the door had I not the benefit of a particularly comfortable seat, a great interest in the buzz surrounding it, and a determination to give it a fair shot before reviewing it. Remarkably, in the last few minutes, it turns out to be rather rewarding.

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This sad tale asks us to empathise throughout with the elderly Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones). He’s a Vietnam Veteran. An ex-military policeman. A devoted father. And both of whose sons joined the armed forces. One has already been killed. The other, Mike, is just back from Iraq. Mike is reported AWOL. Then Mike is reported dead.

Everything about In the Valley Of Elah is low key. Hank checks into a cheap motel and goes about investigating the murder – unassumingly, if rather more capably than either the police or the military. Frustrated detective Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron) taunts him about being “a damn good investigator surrounded by incompetents”. He has to fight against legions of deliberate and non-deliberate incompetence – as well as his own mistakes. His tearful wife (Susan Sarandon) breaks down, suggesting he has ‘sacrificed’ both their sons to the military.

As a detective story, it sags. It’s slow, but we sit and admire the acting. Tommy Lee Jones carries it as few actors could. We follow every line on his brow, search his expressive face for every emotion – he’s our best source of clues. Theron also gives a strong and understated performance. In some ways, she shows how to fight blatant sexism even better than in her towering High Country (although, as in that film, the message seems laid on a little thick at times – is every cop in that part of small town America really a chauvinist pig?)

Then suddenly our movie unravels. We realise it is not about what we thought it was about. By the time the mystery is solved, it doesn’t really matter who killed Mike. What matters is how Hank’s ideas have been forced to change.

The film brings home far too many unpleasant truths to make it easily popular in America. The style lacks the dramatic face-offs and plot-driven tensions of Haggis’ earlier movie, Crash. It can easily be seized on as an anti-war film that will only appeal to the converted, when in fact its implications are much more wide-ranging. The slowness reminds me of Clint Eastwood’s hand, under whose direction stories by Haggis, such as Million Dollar Baby and Flags of Our Fathers became ponderous yet successful. There are far too many moments for my taste where the camera lingers in close-up, for those ‘Oscar worthy’ shots. They are the antithesis of much European cinema, where the camera seems invisible.

Finally there’s the title. Which is either very clever or very confusing. In the Biblical story, Goliath is the heavily armed, strong warrior. He maybe stands for overconfidence, arrogance, bullying. David is armed very simply. His main weapon is a sling. And he has limitless courage. He kills Goliath with a single shot.

One reading involves taking David as symbolising young American troops, their bravery and valour. Yet the story is questioned even by Detective Sanders’ son (who, unlike Hank, has not been raised with strong Biblical beliefs). Why would they send a boy? Or, as Haggis says, “Who would do that? Who would send a young man to fight a giant? This film addresses our responsibility in sending young men and women off to war….”

The biblical story is a great allegory. The triumph of courage over arrogance and brute force. But how believable is it in practice? In reality, the giant would probably crush the boy like a fly. With this reading, we can suggest that the basic (Bible-based) premise, of going to war against an aggressor armed with courage and righteousness, is fatally flawed. The Iraq invasion had too few troops. It underestimated the ferocity of the enemy. Belief in ‘goodness triumphant’ was not enough. A second reading might be to take America as Goliath. High-tech armaments against what is often home-made bombs. Its belief is in its own invincibility. Forever making threats (its critics may argue) against potential enemies. In this reading, David still doesn’t win. Witness the child killed by the advancing truck and the dedication at the end of the film.

A valley is a less than ideal battle ground – troops can pour down the slopes to slaughter people from either side or they become easy prey to archers. Both sides can easily incur heavy losses. Both sides can lose without either winning.

Yet another reading questions how ill-equipped young soldiers are to deal with life when they come back home. They can no longer just send a sling-shot against the forehead of an obvious attacker. Neither do they ascend the throne like King David. “We see that the battlefield is divided up,” says producer Laurence Becsey. “We can view it in the most caustic way, which is combat, but the other is the emotional war that goes on. We may understand the physical sacrifices but we’re not always really prepared for the emotional and psychological cost.”

Probably the most successful ‘David’ of the film is Charlize Theron’s detective. “Emily Sanders is a single mom who is just really trying to survive,” says Theron of her character. She has to battle impossible odds to do that, as well as heavy-handed sexism and prejudice at work.

When Hank tells Emily’s young son (also called David) about David and Goliath as a bed-time story, he emphasises how you can use it to defeat monsters. You call them up close, look them in the eye, then whack ‘em. Young David, who usually likes the door open with some light coming in to his room, lets Hank close the door. Hank casually takes this as a demonstration of the story’s power. But a few minutes later David calls for the door to be opened.

Reviewed on: 03 Feb 2008
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A former soldier investigates the disappearance of his son, who has just returned from a tour of duty in Iraq.
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Read more In The Valley Of Elah reviews:

Jennie Kermode ****

Director: Paul Haggis

Writer: Paul Haggis, Mark Boal

Starring: Tommy Lee Jones, Charlize Theron, Jason Patric, Susan Sarandon, James Franco, Barry Corbin, Josh Brolin

Year: 2007

Runtime: 121 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US

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