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In the Valley of Elah DVD Review

In the Valley of Elah movie poster In the Valley of Elah

Theatrical Release: September 14, 2007 / Running Time: 121 Minutes / Rating: R

Director: Paul Haggis / Writers: Paul Haggis (story & screenplay), Mark Boal (story)

Cast: Tommy Lee Jones (Hank Deerfield), Charlize Theron (Det. Emily Sanders), Jason Patric (Lt. Kirklander), Susan Sarandon (Joan Deerfield), James Franco (Sgt. Dan Carnelli), Barry Corbin (Arnold Bickman), Josh Brolin (Chief Buchwald), Frances Fisher (Evie), Wes Chatham (Corporal Steve Penning), Jake McLaughlin (Spc. Gordon Bonner), Mehcad Brooks (Spc. Ennis Long), Jonathan Tucker (Mike Deerfield), Wayne Duvall (Detective Nugent), Victor Wolf (Private Robert Ortiez), Brent Briscoe (Detective Hodge), Greg Serrano (Detective Manny Nunez), Brent Sexton (Lt. Burke), David Sanders (Devin Brochu), Zoe Kazan (Angie), Glenn Taranto (Detective Wayne), Jennifer Siebel (Jodie), Joseph Bertot (School Janitor), Rick Gonzales (Gabriel the Phone Technician)

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Out of all of the people who have ever written a movie, only one man can claim he wrote the Oscar winner for Best Picture two years in a row. That man is Paul Haggis, whose career rise this decade is nothing short of remarkable. After thirty years of writing for a wide variety of TV shows and made-for-TV movies, Haggis penned Million Dollar Baby for director Clint Eastwood. He quickly followed that up with Crash, which marked his cinematic directing debut and surprised many when it took home Academy Awards for Best Picture and for Best Original Screenplay, which Haggis co-wrote with Bobby Moresco.
Since then, Haggis has kept busy on both the big and small screens, collaborating twice more with Eastwood, creating an acclaimed but short-lived NBC series ("The Black Donnellys"), even putting his hand in the well-received James Bond movie Casino Royale.

Haggis' latest effort as both writer and director is In the Valley of Elah. Despite favorable reviews and a cast of seasoned award winners, this film made little noise when it was given a tiny theatrical release last fall.

Tommy Lee Jones stars as Hank Deerfield, an emotionally restrained Vietnam veteran who in the opening scene receives news that his son Mike has suddenly gone AWOL upon returning from a tour of duty in Iraq. It's an immediate concern, though one which is considered routine by the military officials and the men in Mike's company who Hank pays a visit. Unsatisfied with their efforts, Hank tries to enlist the local police department, who are quick to refer him back to the military.

"In the Valley of Elah" stars Tommy Lee Jones as Hank Deerfield, a Vietnam vet trying to solve the mysteries behind his Iraq veteran son's disappearance. The worn Hank turns to police detective Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron) for help.

When a grisly development is made in the case, Hank (a former military police officer) begins independently investigating a crime that, having occurred on a border, is in jurisdictional uncertainty. The mystery slowly unfolds, like the contemporary investigations regularly dramatized on television, with witness testimonies and forensic evidence. Distinguishing this story are the involvement of Army personnel and Hank's unquenchable thirst for answers. His only real ally comes in police detective Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron), a sympathetic single mother who increasingly invests in the inquiry while trying to maintain professionalism.

The film is an expertly-crafted crime story with high levels of human drama. As in Crash, Haggis finds universalities in character plights and we're instantly there with Hank, demanding answers and empathizing with him even as his participation crosses the occasional line. It's nice to encounter a film which can centers on the War in Iraq without getting up on a political soapbox. At no point in the screenplay is an opportunity seized to truly pass judgment on the United States' presence and actions there. By avoiding this, the film earns the right to be taken more seriously, which in turn finds it with plenty to say about the realities and consequences of this unique conflict.

It is somewhat refreshing, though also saddening, to see Army soldiers and police officers on screen without the usual strokes of heroism. The enlisted are dealt a particularly frank depiction: they frequent strip clubs, widely indulge in illicit drugs, can't say no to a drink, and have hot tempers. Some may cry foul, but the film's portrayals feel justified -- the unspoken argument being that though they're being exposed to atrocious horrors most of us will never have to experience in life, these are still headstrong young twentysomethings who are as ill-equipped to process their trying encounters as anyone.

Detective Sanders (Charlize Theron) questions a suspect while military official Lt. Kirklander (Jason Patric) listens with arms crossed. Susan Sarandon strikes the very same pose she made famous in "Dead Man Walking" in her Oscar-winning performance as Sister Helen Prejean.

In the Valley of Elah's crime investigation feels a little neat. Having Hank receive a new one of his son's jerky,
discomforting cell phone videos every few days is a very clear (but somewhat poignant) device. To keep the proceedings constantly moving, breakthroughs hedge on some coincidences and contrivances. And yet, this tale does not spring from Haggis' imagination; the film opens with the disclaimer that it is inspired by actual events. Though the names are changed, the Deerfields' hometown of Munro, Tennessee does not exist, and the end credits still contend the story is fictitious, some research finds that this really did occur and mostly in the manner observed here.

The film features a remarkably talented cast. The show really belongs to Tommy Lee Jones, whose recent Best Actor nomination was all the Oscar attention given here. It's amazing how much richer a characterization Jones provides as a self-made detective than in his role as a sheriff in the much-decorated No Country for Old Men. There aren't any voiceover monologues or comments on changing times; instead, there's just an earnest modern father who is fleshed out in subtle, effective ways. In the second biggest part, Charlize Theron does very well as the detective who longs to be taken seriously by her male colleagues. The third Oscar winner in the cast, Susan Sarandon, delivers much heart as Hank's distressed wife, who is unfortunately (but probably rightly) set aside for much of the second half.

Other fine and recognizable actors lend support where needed, including Jason Patric, James Franco, Josh Brolin, Barry Corbin, Frances Fisher, Jonathan Tucker (of Haggis' "Black Donnellys") and unknown young men (some of whom are real Iraq War veterans) who I anticipate to see more from. Outside of Patric, those in this supporting class are asked to give no more than one or two scenes. For Fisher, whose one-time partner Clint Eastwood turned down the leading role as part of his retirement from acting, one of those two is brazenly nude.

Even with a modest reported budget of $23 million, In the Valley of Elah has barely turned a profit, earning just under $7 M domestically and another $18 million overseas. Whether it was the Biblical title, the Iraq motif, or just Warner Independent not wanting to risk putting it in more theaters, the lackluster attendance in America is surprising. (An aversion to Iraq discussion was supported by fellow war-themed films, like the Redford/Cruise drama Lions for Lambs, also floundering.) Five months after opening in theaters, Elah came to DVD, Blu-ray, and, soon after, the defeated HD DVD, still wielding much critical buzz.

Buy In the Valley of Elah on DVD from Amazon.com DVD Details

2.35:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Dolby Digital 5.1 (English, French, Spanish),
Dolby Surround (English),
Subtitles: English, English for Hearing Impaired, Spanish, French
Closed Captioned; Extras Subtitled
Release Date: February 19, 2008
Suggested Retail Price: $19.98 (Reduced from $27.98)
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (DVD-9); Black Keepcase
Also available on Blu-ray and HD DVD / DVD Combo

VIDEO and AUDIO

In the Valley of Elah appears in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen and it looks absolutely terrific. Iraq cell phone video footage obviously excluded, the picture is immaculate and the mildly stylized color palette pleasing on a standard TV. On a bigger screen or a DVD-ROM, grain becomes evident throughout. The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack isn't as impressive, but it's selective, not troubled. Some slight peaks in volume levels may have you reaching for the remote in a few noteworthy places (like the inappropriately reprised end credits rap). For the most part, though, this center-heavy track offers smooth sailing.

Four actors who portray Army soldiers (left to right: Victor Wolf, Jake McLaughlin, Wes Chatham, and Mehcad Brooks) discuss the movie's themes in "After Iraq." The middle two have actual military experience. Writer-director Paul Haggis gives some arm-on-shoulder support to Charlize Theron, as witnessed on a set camera in the "In the Valley of Elah" documentary. Tommy Lee Jones tries his hardest to get in touch with Jennifer Lopez in this odd deleted subplot. (No, not J-Lo.)

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS and PACKAGING

The major bonus feature is a 43-minute documentary, presented in two parts: "After Iraq" (27:38) and "Coming Home" (15:20). The division is unnecessary, since both offer the same mix of scenes from the film, B-roll footage, and interviews. Naturally, those last two elements are the most interesting, especially the interviews because the subjects --
including war veterans in the cast and the parents of the movie's inspiration Richard Davis -- talk about the film's themes and the Iraq War instead of throwing praise at one another. It's a great inclusion.

There is also an "additional scene", which should be called an additional subplot. In these three deleted scenes (7:45), Hank learns his son had a girlfriend, tries to contact her, and eventually pays her a visit. The girl, oddly named Jennifer Lopez, is an amputee, an effect conveyed by the uncredited actress wearing a green socks on her arm and leg. The intermittent green screen reveals don't lighten what is rather depressing material.

Trailers at the start of the disc promote Darfur Now, "State of Play", Pu-239 (formerly The Half Life of Timofey Berezin), and Rendition. Elah's trailer is absent, which is unfortunate since Warner's usually good about including those. More will be bothered by the lack of an audio commentary, which Haggis was willing to provide on Crash.

There's little to say about the presentation. The static main menu uses a wider format of part of the cover art set to a short loop of score. The few submenus are silent and composed of various still images. There is no insert inside the case.

As an "exotic dancer" entertains behind him, Hank asks a bartender if he's seen his son. Her wrinkle-free face contrasting Hank (and his shirt), Detective Sanders still has reason for concern in this outdoors New Mexico shot.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

In the Valley of Elah, Paul Haggis' directorial follow-up to feature to his Oscar champ Crash, is a great, affecting film. It unfolds as a crime investigation drama but in the process, speaks volumes on the effect that war, specifically Iraq, has on young men. Excellent acting by a terrific Tommy Lee Jones and a strong supporting cast coupled with sharp writing and sensible direction from Haggis bring to life a fine, moving, and timely story. A viewing is strongly encouraged.

Warner's DVD delivers solid video/audio and an unusually good companion documentary. As the film invites interpretation and its richness, repeat viewings, I'd advocate a purchase. But this is a sad, depressing tale which many might not want to see more than once. Any less than once, though, and you're doing yourself a disservice.

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Reviewed March 14, 2008.



Text copyright 2008 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 2007 Warner Independent Pictures, Nala Films, Summit Entertainment, 2008 and Warner Home Video.
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