In the Valley of Elah

Paul Yim Paul Yim: (paulyim-deleteme[at]-deleteme-direman [dot] com) 2008-04-09 06:35:54

In the Valley of Elah - Rank A

In war, there are no unwounded soldiers.

--Jose Narosky

The valley that the title is referring to is from an account of the Hebrew king, David. It's the place where he slew the titanic Philistine champion, Goliath, with his own sword after having incapacitated him with a one-in-a-million slingshot to the forehead. That old Bible story has come to mean many things to a host of different people all over the world. Typically, it's referenced whenever an underdog overcomes tremendous odds and defeats a superior foe. Colonial militias defeating British regulars, circa 1776, is a perfect example.

In The Valley of Elah, starring Tommy Lee Jones and Charlize Theron, isn't really about underdogs defeating a giant. It isn't really about a war, per se. Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones) is a father whose son has supposedly returned from Iraq only to be deemed AWOL. He comes across Police Detective Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron) and recruits her in his search for his son. In small ways the theme of the underdog fighting the giants of this world comes through: Detective Sanders is a beautiful female cop who gets all the shit cases (missing cats, etc.) because her male peers feel threatened by her; Hank has already lost a son in the army to a freak helicopter crash and keeps getting stonewalled by the powers that be in his unrelenting search for his missing son.

The movie would be adequate if it merely espoused the underdog theme. Thankfully, that's just the hard candy shell. The juicy center of the film slowly oozes out as Hank and Emily start to put the disparate pieces of the puzzle together. You begin to realize that this movie is not so much a mystery thriller as it is a statement. The villain isn't quite what you'd expect and neither is the hero - you could even argue that they are one and the same. This is not to say that the movie doesn't have a reveal or that, when the revelation happens, that it is disappointing. Nothing could be farther from the truth. It is at that moment of truth that the real theme of the movie hits you like a ton of bricks.

Aldous Huxley once said,

"The most shocking fact about war is that its victims and its instruments are individual human beings, and that these individual beings are condemned by the monstrous conventions of politics to murder or be murdered in quarrels not their own."

This statement is made self-evident by the end of the film. We often fall into the trap of counting the cost of a war merely by its fatalities and physically wounded. Some would say that the dead ones are the lucky ones. It's the survivors who must bear the burden of war for the rest of their lives. I often think of the tragic life of Ira Hayes, one of the marines who planted the American flag on top of Mt. Suribachi on the island of Iwo Jima. He was regarded as a hero by many, but ended up dying of exposure as he lay in a drunken stupor in a ditch. For some, the burden is too great.

The second link is the Blu-Ray version of the film.

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