This was a surprisingly good movie with a profound anti-war statement. I don’t know why I did not watch it earlier. Somehow it escaped my radar. I have seen quite a few Iraq war movies and thought I had seen all possible aspects. Well, I was wrong. In the Valley of Elah is a very unusual, interesting look at the war in Iraq and what it does to young soldiers, but it is also a reflection on the changes in values of soldiers. It’s a quite complex movie. To choose the form of a thriller to tell what the director wanted to tell is quite cunning. Even though it’s not a fast movie and it takes its time to unfold what happened, it is still gripping. The time was needed as it also tries to illustrate a change in perceptions. The father who is looking for his son at the beginning of the movie will not be the same person at the end. There will be no more idealizing the military or the value and honor of soldiers.
Tommy Lee-Jones plays the above mentioned father, the retired military police officer, Hank Deerfield. He did tours in Vietnam and Korea. The military is his life. No wonder both of his sons follow the same career path. The older one became a chopper pilot, the younger, Mike, is a private who served first in Bosnia and then in Iraq.
At the beginning of the movie Hank gets a phone call informing him his son Mike is AWOL. Hank thought he was still in Iraq and doesn’t understand why Mike did not contact him. He immediately drives to the base that is located a few thousand miles away. Being a former military police investigator, he wants to look for his son on his own. This is not much appreciated by Mike’s superiors. Hank has another reason for wanting to look for Mike. A strange phone call from his son while he was still in Iraq made him very uneasy. Something terrible must have happened there.
Hank does not get much assistance at the beginning. Neither Mike’s superiors nor his comrades are helpful. And when he goes to the police and speak to Detective Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron) he is turned down. The military has to look for its personnel, as she informs him.
Even though she seems to be hardened, Emily has a very soft spot. And when Mike’s´ severely mutilated body is found and she realizes the military wants to cover up the murder she decides to help Hank to find out who did it. They start to investigate together. The closer they come to the truth, the more Hank has to accept the fact that he did not really know his son and that he has no clue what is going on in Iraq. With the help of a film on Mike’s phone and bits and pieces of information from comrades he understands that this is not Korea or Vietnam and these soldiers are of a different kind. He is disillusioned and shocked about what he finds out. And so is the viewer.
This is a multi-layered, well written and well told tale that is apparently based on true events. We have a multitude of themes here. Changes in the society and its values that also affect soldiers. What does it mean to be a good father? What values do you teach your children? Will they be able to live according to these values when everything around them falls apart? How do you keep young soldiers sane when they become aware that they are part of something that is pointless and wrong?
It is also interesting to think that a veteran probably does not equal a veteran but that it makes a big diference what war a soldier fought in.
The cast of this movie is very well-chosen. Tommy Lee-Jones looks convincingly tired, disillusioned and world-weary. Susan Sarandon‘s despair is palpable and Charlize Theron manages to play a woman whose life is all but a picnic and still looks perfectly beautiful as ususal. Although not Jason Patric´s best role, he is OK as well.