Sunday, September 07, 2008

In the Valley of Elah

In the Old Testament, David fought and vanquished Goliath in the Valley of Elah. That valley is the metaphoric setting for In the Valley of Elah (2007; dir. Paul Haggis). In a sense this film is about the war in Iraq, though most of the action takes place in the United States. A father receives a phone call informing him that his son has gone AWOL. The father doesn't even know his son has returned from Iraq. He feels he knows his son well. He is sure the boy wouldn't go AWOL, and that there will be a good reason for this misunderstanding. He drives to the Army base where the boy is stationed, two days away, and starts looking for him. Tommy Lee Jones plays the father, Paul Deerfield, a former military detective who in retirement drives trucks and hauls loads of gravel.

In his characteristic way Tommy Lee Jones plays the father as an expressionless but likable man who takes charge. He assures his wife that he'll find their boy and that he doesn't need her help. Jones doesn't play Deerfield as a man capable of great depths of introspection. He's a man who lives on the surface. He's never had to question himself or his actions or his relationship with his sons, or with his wife for that matter. He's never questioned how he raised his sons or the pleasure he feels in their military service. He believes without question in the Bible story he reads to a young boy in the film—the story of David and Goliath.

Deerfield and his wife had two sons. Their older son was killed in a military helicopter accident 10 years before. Michael, the AWOL soldier, is the surviving child.

There are a number of different ways to look at this film. It is a detective story about the search for a missing son and about the search for the murderers when the son turns up dead. It is also about parents and their children, about the responsibility parents bear for the people their children become. And it's about parents coping with a son's death. It's true that in this film the boy doesn't die in Iraq. But he dies as a result of Iraq--that much is clear. But that much is not entirely relevant either.

Deerfield's self-confidence and certainty that he can find his boy are quickly challenged. He no longer knows anyone at the military base where he once worked. The Army believes his AWOL son is blowing off steam after his return from Iraq and that he will surface soon. The father seeks help from the local police, but they regard the missing soldier as a military problem. He tries to trace the boy's movements and is only moderately successful. Then the boy's body turns up on an isolated road outside town--chopped into pieces and burned.

Some time ago I read a comment that cited In the Valley of Elah as an example of how films about the war in Iraq are not marketable or popular. I'm not sure Iraq is the reason for this film's lack of popularity. The target audience for most popular films is the 18- to 25-year-old age bracket. This film is about a father and his search for his lost boy, about the father's search to discover who his boy really was, a boy he never really knew. The film demands that you watch it from a perspective totally foreign to the target demographic audience. You have to be a parent with adult children living independently outside the home to understand this film. What do parents really know about their adult children? Most parents love and idolize their children. They are not always prepared for those moments when they discover that their children might have become something different than what they hoped for or expected. They especially are not prepared for the discovery that they're the ones who made their children into the strange and unfamiliar beings who shock them. This is certainly the case with Hank Deerfield.

Tommy Lee Jones is excellent as Deerfield. I thought he was good in No Country for Old Men, but he is even better here. Charlize Theron is also effective in her role as a police detective who befriends Jones and assists in investigating his son's disappearance. She occupies her own Valley of Elah. She's the only woman on the police force, and the other detectives believe she slept her way into her current position. She's unwilling to say whether this is true. There is some kind of relationship she apparently had with the chief of police. She's recently divorced, and she admits that her son was not fathered by her ex-husband. Much of this seems totally irrelevant to the point of the film. It's enough to know that she's a woman, an excellent detective, and that the police force for which she works is dominated by men who take every opportunity to make fun of her.

To Hank Deerfield, the Valley of Elah is the stolid and impenetrable wall of the military, which resists his investigation into the mystery of his son's disappearance and death. It's that gap of understanding between himself and his missing son—the son he thought he knew and who he learns he didn't know well at all. It's the gap of understanding between himself and the identity of his son's killers. It's that knowledge he comes to grasp of his responsibility for the man his son became in Iraq. It's the realization he comes to about his failure, in a crucial moment, to understand certain facts his son was trying to convey to him.

When Deerfield learns who murdered his son, the discovery seems incidental. The discovery at the heart of this film brings knowledge he has to live with for the rest of his life.

Susan Sarandon is excellent as Deerfield's wife, Joan.

An awkward element is the series of video clips Deerfield finds on his son's damaged cell phone. They are jerky and corrupt and difficult to watch. At first they make no sense, but as Deerfield assembles information about his son, he begins to understand what the images convey. Their use in the film seems an unnecessary gimmick.

In the Valley of Elah is a very fine film.

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