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In the Valley of Elah - drama DVD review
IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH Rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America rating: 4 stars
Actors: Tommy Lee Jones, Charlize Theron, Jason Patric, Susan Sarandon, James Franco, Josh Brolin
Director: Paul Haggis   Studio: Warner Home Video
DVD release: 19 February 2008   Runtime: 121 minutes (1 disc)
Format: AC-3, Closed-captioned, Color, Dolby, Dubbed, DVD-Video, Subtitled, Widescreen, NTSC
DVD Features: Audio tracks (Dolby AC-3 Surround - English, French, Spanish), Subtitles (English, English CC, French, Spanish), In the Valley of Elah: After Iraq, In the Valley of Elah: Coming Home, Additional scene

The power of this film is captured on the face of its protagonist. A distraught father, ex-career military Hank Deerfield, has not heard from his son, Mike, since the young man returned from his recent tour in Iraq. Unable to learn anything from a barrage of phone calls to the base, Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones) hops into his battered pickup truck, leaving an anxious wife (Susan Sarandon) behind in Tennessee, with the words: "I'll find him."

A man who has lived according to the rigorous principles of his military training, Deerfield follows procedure but receives few answers. Hoping to circumvent the military, Deerfield goes to a local police department, where he requests the aid of a female detective, Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron), a young woman who has been mercilessly harassed by the other detectives in the squad. When the remains of a mutilated body are discovered on the city limits, charred beyond recognition, Deerfield shadows Sanders, fearful that the victim may be his son.

The essence of the film is caught in the remainder of the story, the identity of the victim and the reason for the ghastly crime. Deerfield is forced to confront the realities of his son's service, the terrible stresses of war and the emotional damage sustained by the soldiers who serve in Iraq. Projecting every emotion in his face, grief, horror, loss, disbelief, Jones carries the movie on the strength of his performance. As he makes his bed with military precision, shines his shoes each night and places them precisely at the foot of his motel bed, the strain of his task is evident.

Terrible as they are, the answers are revealed through the diligence of the detective, the details of the murder calmly enumerated by an impassive soldier who fought by Mike Deerfield's side in Iraq. Director Paul Haggis (Crash) is circumspect - he at no time demeans the service of these young men or the army. Mike's fate is one more case of collateral damage: in this instance, a young man unprepared to return to civilian life.

One solder admits to Deerfield in a moment of complete honesty, "When I was in Iraq, I couldn't wait to get home. After two weeks here, I want to be there." Helpless in the face of a moral conundrum, Deerfield must make peace with reality and his part in his son's dilemma, remembering a call from Iraq, when Mike tells Hank that something has happened and begs his father to get him out of there. That conversation haunts Deerfield as he waits for the remnants of his son to be shipped home.

There is a fine if low-key supporting cast - Sarandon, Theron, Jason Patric - but it is Tommy Lee Jones who carries the film. In a final scene, a poignant moment leaves the viewer stunned, a father's statement on behalf of his lost son. In the Valley of Elah, David slays Goliath, but the soul of this film lies in the nature of war and its demands on the human spirit.
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reviewed by Luan Gaines
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