In the Valley of Elah

An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis

            “In the Valley of Elah” rests entirely in the hands of Tommy Lee Jones. Recognizing that the success of the film would depend on handing Jones control, director Paul Haggis becomes a support system for his lead actor. The result is a grim but powerful film about a father in search of his son, a regular Army soldier who has gone AWOL after a stint in Iraq.

            Nothing in this movie speeds up beyond the personality and character of Hank Deerfield (Mr. Jones). Everything he says and does is measured and deliberate; every detail of his life is considered. As a sergeant in Vietnam he learned the intricacies of deduction and observation. We realize that once this man sets his mind to his search, he will not stop short of finding his son.
            When the phone call comes, Hank packs a small bag and leaves for Mike’s army base. Checking into a cheap motel behind a gas station, he settles in for the duration. When a body is found, Hank will face both the disinterest of the local police and stonewalling by the Army. An ordinary man trying to pierce a cover-up needs both persistence and luck. Hank has plenty of the first, and the luck comes in the form of Detective Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron) who slowly begins to understand that Hank is being brushed off.

            Everything about this movie is right. The main characters – because each actor is a major talent – have caught the rhythm of the movie and never violate it. They literally blend into the landscape that contains their lives. The relationship between Hank and his wife Joan (Susan Sarandon) unfolds for the most part on the telephone in a painful portrait of a marriage of cool distance. This woman will suffer alone, and so will her husband. Susan Sarandon is wonderful as the woman who shares life with a man who lives in silence. Charlize Theron is just right as the detective who responds with innate decency to help a man at the bottom of his life. She periodically explodes her way past the bureaucrats to open the door for the restrained but furious father.

            And then there’s Tommy Lee Jones. Whether he is calmly explaining a discovery, or patiently holding his ground in a police waiting room, he has made himself small and ordinary in the face of bureaucracy. How do we get to know him? Watch the scene in the Laundromat where, sitting in his undershirt, he spots Emily approaching and grabs a damp shirt from the dryer. He will dress with proper respect. Watch him make his bed with military precision in the motel. And listen carefully to possibly the sweetest bedtime story every filmed – by Hank to Emily’s son David. In just two hours we know Hank is uncomfortable, vulnerable, honest, precise, unrelenting and possessed of a will of iron. It’s all in Tommy Lee Jones’s details and he has made Hank unforgettable.


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