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In the Valley of Elah

Paramount Vantage

Review in a Hurry:  Writer/director Paul Haggis, an Oscar winner for Crash, returns with this based-on-true-events story of an AWOL soldier, starring Tommy Lee Jones (Oscar winner!), Susan Sarandon (Oscar winner!) and Charlize Theron (Oscar winner!). Sure, it's good and everything, but you can almost hear Academy members sharpening their ballot pencils in anticipation. Start engraving those trophies now.

The Bigger Picture:  Get ready for the surge! Several movies packing hard-hitting Iraq war themes will be storming your multiplexes this fall. And if Elah's moments of shock and awe are any indication, Hollywood's invasion will be mission accomplished.

In a powerful and yes, award-worthy performance, Jones plays Hank Deerfield, a former military MP and Vietnam vet who lives in Tennessee with his wife, Joan (Sarandon). When Hank gets the news that his soldier son Mike has gone missing since returning from Iraq, he hauls it to Fort Rudd, New Mexico, to investigate.

Mike's mutilated remains turn up in the desert by the army base, and Hank demands some answers. But he gets little help from military officials—surprise, surprise—or Mike's platoon buds, so he appeals to police detective Emily Sanders (Theron, a little too gorgeous as a small-town cop proving her mettle to the big boys). With her help, Hank starts piecing together the clues.

Though the film follows a murder-mystery structure and does so effectively, Elah is actually a commentary on the ravages of war: How it destroys the bodies and psyches of our soldiers, tears apart our families and our nation. Unfortunately, Haggis has a tendency to get heavy-handed with his themes. For instance, the title—for those needing a Sunday School refresher—references the setting of the David and Goliath story. And in a bedtime scene reminiscent of Crash, Hank tells Emily's son how the small boy slew the giant with a well-placed stone between the eyes.

Okay, I get it. I don't need to be hit on the head like Goliath (the film's understated gems are enough, thanks). Though perhaps some people—especially in our government—still do.

The 180—a Second Opinion:  As Scarlett O'Hara complained, "War, war, war! This war talk's spoiling all the fun at every party this spring! I get so bored I could scream!" Well, if all these war movies threaten to spoil your fun this fall, then frankly, my dear, you should say "Fiddle-dee-dee" to Elah and the rest.