Movie review: “In the Valley of Elah”

It was my turn to choose a DVD tonight, as hubby was going out, so I picked In the Valley of Elah, which he wasn’t keen to see. Written and directed by Paul Haggis, it is an anti-war film that is based on a true story.

It is the story of Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones), a father who is told that his son Mike, who has just returned from a tour of duty in Iraq, has disappeared from the military base at Fort Rudd. Deerfield used to be in the military himself many years ago, and fought in the war in Vietnam. He leaves his wife Joan (Susan Sarandon) at home to drive across country to the military base and find out what has happened to his son. He meets a couple of the other soldiers who were in Mike’s unit, but they are unable – or unwilling – to help him.

In frustration, he tries to report the matter to the local police, who refuse to assist “because it is a military matter” and because they “do not have jurisdiction”. The local police are a sorry bunch. They are narrow-minded bigots, who make infantile and sexist comments about the one and only female detective on the team, Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron).

When a dismembered body – well, bits of it – is/are found on a field outside town, it is identified as Hank’s AWOL son Mike. As the police are busy trampling all over the field, looking for evidence and destroying it in the process, the military arrives to say that it had hired the field 2 months previously and that the murder was thus committed in their jurisdiction. The police are delighted to hand over the case, as it saves them adding another unsolved murder to their list.

But Emily isn’t happy about this. And Hank isn’t happy with the way the military is handling the investigation, so the two of them team up – sort of – to solve the case.

Hank had stolen his son’s cellphone from his quarters at the base, and he persuades a computer whizz to extract the video clips from it that his son had been filming during his time in Iraq, in the hope that they will reveal what happened to him. The distorted and damaged video clips are sent to him one by one, and Hank gradually starts piecing together what happened to Mike’s unit in Iraq, and the effects this had on the soldiers – as well as the repercussions after they returned home.

It kept me guessing until the end.

Nonetheless, I didn’t find the ending very satisfactory at all. It seemed to me a disturbingly illogical motive for such a vicious and brutal murder.

But what did leave an impression was this:

At the start of the movie, when Hank drives away from his home, he passes a neighbourhood school where an American flag is flying upside down. He stops and goes to speak to the custodian, who I think is Mexican or something. He takes down the flag, carefully turns it the right way up, and explains that, when the American flag is flying upside down, it is the sign of a national emergency, or a national disaster, or that the nation is in a crisis.

At the end of the movie, when he returns home, he passes the same school, where the flag is now hanging the right way up. He stops, takes down the flag, turns it upside down, and then hoists it again. He wraps duct tape around the pole to fasten the rope in place, and tells the custodian that the flag should stay that way, all day, all night.


Other movies we’ve watched in July:  

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