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In the Valley of Elah (2007)

Warner Home Video
DVD Released: 2/19/2008

All Ratings out of

Review by Mike Long, Posted on 2/19/2008

What's your take on "message movies"? As someone who approaches film primarily for entertainment, but I'm really on the fence with this genre. Don't get me wrong, I have nothing against a filmmaker wanting to make a serious film which actually says something...just as long as the story doesn't get bogged-down in the message. Obviously, this is a tough tight-rope to walk, and few films can succeed in this endeavor in the way in which Paul Haggis' In the Valley of Elah does.

Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones) receives a phone call from the Army stating that his soldier son Mike (Jonathan Tucker) has gone AWOL. Hank tells them that this must be a mistake, as Mike is in Iraq. Hank is informed that Mike returned to the U.S. earlier in the week and is now missing. Hank, a former military man himself, kisses his wife, Joan (Susan Sarandon), goodbye and heads for the Army base to check things out for himself. Once there, he meets with Sergeant Carnelli (James Franco), and some of Mike's buddies -- Corporal Penning (Wes Chatham), Specialist Bonner (Jake McLaughlin), and Specialist Long (Mehcad Brooks) -- but they don't have much information, save for the fact that Mike went out with the guys one night and didn't return to the base. Hank approaches local police detective Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron), but she informs him that she can't do anything, as it's a military matter. When it's revealed that a tragedy has befallen Mike, Hank and Emily begin to investigate the situation and learn that the soldiers have brought more back from Iraq than just war stories.

In the Valley of Elah is a powerful film which works on (at least) two levels. Your personal viewpoint will determine which one of those levels is the primary one. For me, it was the mystery story. I'm not ashamed to admit that I typically don't get into serious films (especially those which would be considered Oscar-worthy) unless there is a good story, and we certainly get one with In the Valley of Elah. The movie hits the ground running, and while it doesn't bombard us with details (more on that in a moment), it tells us what we need to know: a soldier is missing and his father will stop at nothing to find him. As the movie proceeds, it plays out like a classic mystery -- Hank questions those who know Mike, visit Mike's favorite haunts, and a picture begins to form. We aren't told much about Mike at the outset, but based on what we know, we assume that he's a clean-cut, upstanding soldier. As Hank investigates, we learn that Mike (and the other soldiers) had some vices. I also liked the relationship between Hank and Emily. For once, we have a situation with a man and a woman where there's no romance or sexuality -- they are merely two people who share a common goal and work ethic.

And then we have the message side of the film. In the Valley of Elah comes to us from writer/director Paul Haggis, whose credits include Crash and Million Dollar Baby (which he wrote). Haggis has never been known to shy away from political or controversial topics and he certainly doesn't here. His message is simple: War is hell. But, he's not only speaking of what the soldiers experience in combat. In the Valley of Elah focuses on what happens when the soldiers come home and are expected to return to "normal lives". Through Mike's story, and through various subplots, we see how the war in Iraq has effected today's soldiers and the stories are very disturbing. As Hank investigates the disappearance of his son, he encounters many soldiers and hears their stories, and all of them say nearly the exact same thing, "It's really f&%#ed up over there." As the story unfolds, we get a chilling picture of just what war can do to a man.

While Haggis has crafted a very nice multi-layered story, In the Valley of Elah does have some problems. Tommy Lee Jones was nominated for an Academy Award for his portrayal of a determined father, and rightfully so, as he carries this film. Yet, Jones may actually be too stoic here, as he never reacts to anything which he is witnessing. We know that he was in the military, but is he shocked by anything which he uncovers? He learns a lot about his son that he didn't know, and he learns some very disturbing things about the war, yet we never really know what he's feeling. (We also get too little info about Hank's past. He makes a living hauling gravel, yet he's smarter than anyone else in the film. Did he take this occupation because of his time in the military?) And this is going to sound very odd, but I found the resolution to the mystery to be too simple. Yes, it's disturbing, and as it's based on an actual event, it's realistic, but I expected something more. Many will be disturbed (and rightfully so) but the ending, but I felt that the movie was leading us down a different path.

In the Valley of Elah is a nice blend of a movie which has something to say and one which is entertaining as well. The film plays as a combination of A Few Good Men and Hardcore. It can be enjoyed solely as a mystery, but those with strong political views, will certainly find something over which to debate in the movie.

In the Valley of Elah is lost and found on DVD courtesy of Warner Home Video. The film has been letterboxed at 2.35:1 and the transfer is enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs. The image looks very good, as there is virtually no grain here and there are no defects from the source material. The colors are fine and the image is never overly dark or bright. There was some slight video noise in some scenes, but otherwise the transfer is solid. The DVD carries a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track which provides clear dialogue and sound effects. Overall, this is a very quiet film, but the musical score sounds very good. There is one action sequence which provides some nice surround sound and stereo effects.

The In the Valley of Elah DVD contains a few extras. "In the Valley of Elah: Documentary" is divided into two parts. "After Iraq" (28 minutes) contains behind-the-scenes footage, as well as comments from the cast and filmmakers. It also has details of the real-life crime which inspired the film, including interview footage with the victim's father. Instead of simply examining the making of the movie, the piece explores the "real" elements of the film as the actors talk about the war. "Coming Home" (15 minutes) again contains an abundance of on-set footage, but it also features a discussion of post-traumatic stress disorder and how returning to "normal life" effects soldiers. The DVD also contains one ADDITIONAL SCENE which runs about 8 minutes. In it, Hank attempts to track down a girl who his son had been seeing.

Warner Home Video has also brought In the Valley of Elah to Blu-ray Disc. Again, the film is letterboxed at 2.35:1 and the disc holds a VC-1 1080p HD transfer which runs at an average of 20 Mbps. This is the rare occasion where the Blu-ray doesn't look as good as the DVD (in my opinion). This transfer reveals a undeniable sheen of light grain which is evident throughout the film. There are several scenes which take place in stark hallways, and the grain is very noticeable here. Other than that, the image is sharp and well-balanced. The colors look fine and the image does have a nice amount of detail. I noted no video noise or artifacting. The audio track here is a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track which runs at 48 kHz and averages 1.7 Mbps. Again, this is a quiet film that is a dialogue-driven drama. Thankfully, the dialogue sounds great and is always intelligible. There are some very subtle stereo and surround effects here, and the music sounds very good.

The extras on the Blu-ray Disc are the same as those found on the DVD.

Review Copyright 2008 by Mike Long