Jake’s second film was In The Valley Of Elah, one of the many mid-late ’00s films dealing with the Iraq War and/or its aftermath. Unlike, say, The Hurt Locker, In The Valley Of Elah didn’t really win any big awards, and unlike Zero Dark Thirty it didn’t make a ton of money, but it was a worthy film. Director Paul Haggis (Crash) took the scenario from a real life incident, but the thrust of the film is fictional and it’s not in any way a depiction of those events. The title of the film itself comes from the valley where David met Goliath, a story which enters into a small subplot but doesn’t really have any role as a metaphor in the larger context of the film.
Sir Not Appearing In This Film is Mike “Doc” Deerfield, a United States soldier who had recently returned from a tour in Iraq. Doc had a pretty rough time dealing with the brutality of war, something that he had difficulty conveying to his veteran father. But he had a penchant for using his cellphone to photograph and film some of these horrors, for whatever purposes. It turns out he had become a bit sadistic during his tour, earning his nickname by torturing a captured wounded enemy by repeatedly sticking his fingers into the bullet wound and asking “Does this hurt? How about now?” Above, Doc is taking a picture the subject of which is unclear (a crumpled mass in the road), but which his father will eventually obsess over.
Shortly after returning to a stateside base on leave, Doc disappears, prompting his father Hank to make the long drive to try to track him down. Hank is frustrated by the lax efforts of the Military Police in investigating his son’s disappearance, which they are treating as a desertion rather than a missing-persons case.
So Hank (eventually) is able to secure the assistance of a local police detective played by Charlize Theron. And, you know what? I’ve got to get a bit sidetracked here.
OK, so this is what Charlize Theron looks like (maybe not quite so yellow, but you get the point). She is one of the most beautiful women on the planet. Yet, for some reason it has become really popular (at least this film and Monster) to cast Theron into a role where she was expected to play a homely (as here) or even downright ugly (as in Monster) character. Yeah, makeup, we get it. But seriously, why in the world do directors insist on casting a beautiful woman and making her ugly? Yeah, she’s a serious actor, we get it. But if you want a homely character, cast a homely actor. There are plenty of them around. Don’t go ruining the beautiful people by making them ugly. It just feels so dishonest.
Anyway, shortly the missing persons case is closed, because Doc is found a bit worse for wear a little way off of a desert road. Hank subsequently inserts himself into his son’s murder investigation, which initially focuses on the possibility that Doc was a drug mule. This is largely because he was found dismembered and half-burned in the desert. Seems a reasonable supposition. The police eventually chase down yet another missing man from the company (did I mention the military was not particularly helpful in the investigation?) who was a bit of a trouble maker, but it turns out he didn’t do it.
This guy did it. And it was completely and totally senseless – Doc and his buddies were out at a strip club, Doc started treating the ladies rudely, they got kicked out, and he and his buddies got into a fight. The fight carried over into later in the evening, and suddenly one dude just stabbed Doc about 47 times. They didn’t know what to do, so they dismembered him, tried to burn the body, then took his credit card and went to an all-night chicken shack. So it goes.
With the murder solved the film is nearly over, but Hank is still looking for a bit of closure so he questions AWOL #2 on what the photo I mentioned above was of. The revelation speaks to the turns in Doc’s character brought on by the war. A tactic being used by the guerillas was to send a person into a narrow street to stop a military convoy, and then to ambush. Doc was driving when a young child came out in front of his vehicle and the crew fearing an ambush, he was instructed not to stop. The child – the crumpled mass in the picture Hank obsessed over – was killed…but there was no ambush. Heavy.
There was overall quite a bit to like about this film. Tommy Lee Jones may only play one character in his many films, but he does it pretty well. On top of the acting, the exposition is pretty exquisitely done – Haggis, who also wrote the screenplay, has a clear eye for when to introduce his plot elements, and it compensates for the anticlimactic facts surrounding the murder, largely by continually giving the audience reasons to believe that Doc was wrapped up in “something big”. But in the end, the murder wasn’t meaningful in any significant way – it was a random, non-premeditated fight. The kid died for nothing at all, and it’s daring to write a screenplay about that and commendable when you pretty much get it right. The movie also does a good job of sidestepping the opportunity to bang you over the head with a morality story about PTSD. One could easily hypothesize that many of the acts carried out in the films, not only by the killers but by Doc and AWOL#2 as well, could be explained by the cliché of PTSD, but the movie doesn’t stoop to pop psychology as it easily could have. These folks were not explicitly portrayed as victims of PTSD – they were portrayed as victims of life, and I think that’s the more compelling story.
The one thing that was missing was the denouement for Doc’s mother (Susan Sarandon). She does play a relatively large role, though most of it from home. By the end of the film, Hank has learned a lot about his son and a lot about the circumstances surrounding his death, and he’s going to have to tell her something. We don’t get to see it, and we should. Maybe Haggis thought it was too tough to write, but I had the whole thing in my head as I walked out of the film. I’ll leave it out here, but for better or worse, Haggis shouldn’t have.