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.

Kid_camera

Say Hummus!

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.

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Has anybody questioned Anton Chigurh?

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.

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And did I mention she’s a world-famous billionaire bikini supermodel astrophysicist?

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.

Hello, I'm Charlize Theron

Hello, I’m Charlize Theron

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.

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Stay away from the appetizer plate at Salome’s Texas BBQ

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.

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Could I get an order of biscuits on the side?

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.

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Hey, we’re having a party down at Chico’s tonight, you should come, bring some friends…

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.

2 Responses to “In The Valley Of Elah”

  1. Jake Says:

    I’m not sure of this so please correct me if I’m mistaken, but I hope you’re not trying to downplay the effects of PTSD with a quote like, “..cliché of PTSD.”

    I would also suggest that it wasn’t exactly PTSD being offered up to explain why they would kill Doc. Rather suggesting that the military doesn’t do it’s part to “untrain” a soldier once they are brought back stateside. It’s sort of highlighting the non-existence of a debriefing (or at least an effective one) or some other type of re-training that should exist for every soldier leaving the battlefield, whether it be for a temporary leave, or permanent discharge. Theron’s character says something along the lines of …one minute you’re being shot at and the next you’re back home… I’m paraphrasing of course. If anything, it highlights just one specific part of PTSD, and not the entire problem as a whole.

    A few psychologists (Mark Twain, as well) are quoted to have said “to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” So for these boys, they were continually conditioned for years to kill, without regard for why or how; just that they had an enemy, and they had to kill that enemy. Their training to kill is their “hammer” and a conflict with an enemy (Doc in this case) is the “nail.” They did what they were taught to do to their enemies: Kill them.

    As for the photo of the yellow Charlize Theron above, you have to be aware of air-brushing by now right?? I’m willing to bet that on a normal day without being on some set, Theron probably looks more like her character in this movie then she does in that air-brushed image you have placed above. Besides that, why would they cast a lesser-known actress just because she’s less attractive and fits the type-cast easier, when Theron is going to undoubtedly bring in more revenue?


  2. On the PTSD comment, I think you’ve mostly misread my intent. It feels to me that recently PTSD has become a convenient (and lazy) device in fiction, in the same way that Hitler is. If you want a bad guy in your story, make him a Nazi and your job is done – obviously he’s a bad guy and you need not expend any more effort convincing the audience why. If you need an otherwise good person to act out of character, just blame it on PTSD and be done with it. It’s lazy character building, and I believe if you read the paragraph again you’ll see that I am praising the film for NOT being lazy about it.

    As far as Theron goes, I’ll set aside air-brushing because I think it’s beside the point. Yes, makeup plays a role, but she has been given the opportunity to do what she does for a living because she is beautiful without makeup. There’s something terribly distracting (to me) about a beautiful person being “made down” to fit character. Still, I probably wouldn’t have commented much about it if it weren’t for her similar (even-more made down, even more distracting) turn in “Monster”. It can be done right – the prime example for me is Kelli Garner in Lars and the Real Girl (though I don’t find Garner anywhere near as beautiful as Theron to begin with). But here it didn’t quite work for me, and I’d have preferred a no-name average-looking actress. I do suppose Theron probably brings in more revenue in principle, but in practice I don’t know if it worked much for In the Valley of Elah. The film made under $7M domestically, and it wasn’t heavily marketed enough for me to know that Theron was even in the film before it was scheduled for Cinema 1544. Theron certainly got paid more than a lesser name would have – was there a net gain there? I don’t know. Anyway, I don’t think it’s a big deal, it’s just one of the things that stood out for me when I watched the film.

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