In biblical times, armies settled conflicts through solo combat: one nation’s champion against the other’s. How much death and suffering might have been averted if only Osama bin Laden had agreed to go mano a mano with, say, Pat Tillman? Goliath, the hulking jock from whom we get the word galoot, presented himself as champion of the Philistines, the extinct ancient people whose name became a synonym for boors, perhaps because it was their enemy who got to tell the story. According to 1 Samuel 17:2, when the Philistines and the Israelites confronted each other in the valley of Elah, the witless giant strutted about taunting his adversaries to produce one man rash enough to do battle with him. For weeks, none dared come forward, until spry little David picked up five stones, placed them in his slingshot, and brought Goliath down.
The tale of David and Goliath is told twice in In the Valley of Elah, portentously enough to suggest parallels to the film’s post-biblical plot. Though he, too, is agile and insistent despite formidable obstacles, Tommy Lee Jones’s craggy, cranky Hank Deerfield could hardly be mistaken for the brash young slingshooter who slew the big bad Philistine. In contrast to the smooth-skinned Hebrew lad, Hank has been shaving for many years — though that does not prevent him from nicking himself in the neck. A long-retired army sergeant who retains enough military regimen to insist on remaking a motel bed that lacks hospital corners, Hank now earns his living hauling gravel. An unexpected phone call rouses him to vie alone against the combined might of military and civilian authority.
Informed that his surviving younger son, Mike (a helicopter crash at a stateside base 10 years ago killed his older one), has gone AWOL, the father hops into his truck and drives from Munro, Tennessee, to Fort Rudd, New Mexico, where Mike’s army squad is billeted. Though Hank is determined to find out what became of his boy, who recently returned from Iraq, he is stymied by the indifference and deceit of those who might help. A jurisdictional dispute between the army and local police limits the willingness of either to cooperate with the irksome interloper.
However, Emily Sanders (Theron), a police detective in the town surrounding Fort Rudd, becomes convinced that Mike’s disappearance merits more attention than her disdainful colleagues are willing to devote. The only woman in the investigations unit, Emily is anxious to prove that she deserves her job not simply because she slept with the chief. She joins Hank in his desperate quest to get to the truth about his missing son. The story of two Davids, each confronting invincible forces, In the Valley of Elah becomes a buddy flick teaming an old dog with a fresh hound, both intent on sniffing out what became of Mike Deerfield.
According to the opening credits, director Paul Haggis, who was also responsible for the screenplays of Million Dollar Baby, Crash, and Flags of Our Fathers, was “inspired by actual events.” And In the Valley of Elah echoes with the off-screen anguish of a long and futile foreign war. In pursuit of the truth about one American soldier just back from Iraq, Hank and Emily discover the exorbitant, continuing toll war takes on the warriors. It is not exactly post-traumatic stress disorder from which virtually every veteran suffers, since the stress is never over. Jones’s weathered face, shown frequently in closeup, is a study in suppressed rage, boundless grief, and quiet desperation. He is as resolute as Pete Perkins in ensuring a proper burial for Melquiades Estrada. “My son has spent the last 18 months bringing democracy to a shithole and serving his country,” Hank tells an unresponsive bureaucrat. “He deserves better than this.”
Though he has not worn a uniform in decades, Hank remains a stubborn patriot who refuses to allow an American flag to be hung incorrectly. A former MP, he is still a shrewd enough sleuth to outwit Goliath. However, he, too, has been warped by war: Vietnam. Hank places David’s biblical victory in the valley of Elah when recounting it as a bedtime story to Emily’s young son. However, it is Psalm 23 more than 1 Samuel that locates the world (our world) that this film evokes — the valley of the shadow of death. •
In the Valley of Elah
Writ. & dir. Paul Haggis; feat. Tommy Lee Jones, Charlize Theron, Jason Patric, Susan Sarandon (R)