Omitting the brainfart that was The Black Donnellys, Paul Haggis has had a string of good luck lately, receiving Oscar nominations in the last three consecutive years. This year could mark number four with his drama In the Valley of Elah. Haggis juggled everything behind the scenes as he directed, produced, co-wrote the film and marshaled its strong ensemble cast, getting three Oscar winners for the main roles. Elah stars Tommy Lee Jones as war veteran Hank Deerfield. His son returns home from active duty in Iraq and mysteriously disappears, leaving Hank to piece together what has happened to him. Susan Sarandon plays Hank’s wife, Joan, and Charlize Theron is Detective Emily Sanders, who aids Hank Deerfield in the investigation.
In the Valley of Elah is a moving and powerful film that engrosses the viewer from start to finish. With strong performances all around it would not be unlikely to see this film in the upcoming Oscar race. From the get-go, Elah gets to the point. We are immediately presented with the news that Deerfield’s son has gone missing, and over the next two hours we learn a great deal about the characters. Hank Deerfield heads the investigation and through his son’s damaged cell phone, containing videos and pictures, we learn as Hank learns. Viewing these grainy archives we begin to understand who his son is and gain further knowledge about Hank Deerfield himself. In addition, we also see through the eyes of an American soldier serving in Iraq and the strain that weighs on soldiers’ sanity in combat and out.
I could not imagine anyone to play the role of Hank Deerfield besides Tommy Lee Jones. His persona is the foundation for In the Valley of Elah. Jones’ weathered face contains pain and he seems as if he has walked too long down a bad road. His eyes alone express his devastation and sorrow as he searches for the truth. His performance is mesmerizing and incredible; he easily embodies all of the complexities of a soldier including his diligence and dedication. As Hank digs deeper, he must question his patriotism and long-held beliefs that define him as a good solider. Jones is sincere and true to his role and exercises enormous restraint while having a genuine emotional impact.
Charlize Theron gives a superb performance, once again dumbing down her looks, as a single mom and detective who outsmarts her sexist male co-workers. She bonds with Hank as she learns from his amateur detective skills and couples them with her knowledge to help Hank find the truth about his son. She stands out from the backdrop of the supporting cast, but is not someone desperately trying to get our attention. Distinct yet subtle performances from Susan Sarandon and Jason Patric balance the story. There’s never a dull moment or any period where the film drags on. The script for this film is brilliant especially considering that there is not an immense amount of dialogue. I’d say half the scenes are just silence with the actors doing their thing, but when they do speak, each line is perfect. The fact that it isn’t dialogue driven and the brilliant cast can carry the story with their strong on screen presence makes this a fantastic hard-hitting drama.
The film’s one questionable flaw that might irritate audiences, depending on their expectations, is that for a mystery film Elah is not an edge-of-your-seat suspense thriller. For the alert viewers, nothing that happens comes as a real shock. It’s not your typical murder mystery with multiple plot twists taking you every which way. But as you watch the film, you’ll realize that had Haggis tried to include the expected thrills the film’s quality would have suffered.
In the Valley of Elah is not an anti-war statement by any means. It doesn’t take sides and isn’t political. It just tells the story of a man searching for a son who vanished. This was a great follow-up for Haggis after a three-year absence from directing (his last picture was Crash). I think Elah solidifies Paul Haggis as one of best in the business. In the Valley of Elah stands on its own and has the potential to be a strong Oscar contender.