Author Topic: IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH (2007)  (Read 170 times)

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Offline agate

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« on: July 26, 2017, 04:53:16 pm »

It is 2004, and in Tennessee, Hank (Tommy Lee Jones), who was once an MP in the military, is notified that his son Mike is AWOL though his unit arrived in the US only 4 days before, from the Iraq war.

The rest of the movie is devoted to Hank’s quest to learn what has happened. He finds out, and it is horrible, especially since Hank and his wife Joan (Susan Sarandon) have already lost their older son to the military.

The movie closes with a dedication: “For the children.” The viewer will probably have no doubt about the meaning of the dedication, and it doesn’t just pertain to this particular sadly bereft couple.

Hank reveals himself to be very much a military man, down to the way he treats his shoes and the way he makes his bed. This man has been formed by the military and has the deepest respect for it. Hank loves the Bible and the flag and has tried hard to be a good father. That he is bigoted in his views comes out in one stressful scene but we suspect that ordinarily he makes an attempt at being more fair-minded than the grief-crazed Hank who calls his son’s Army buddy a wetback.

He hasn’t got very far in his investigation before he encounters Emily, whose work as part of the city detective unit is made more tense on account of the jeering she is routinely  subjected to from some of her fellow cops in the office. She appears to be the only woman there, and the others insist on treating her as if she is soft–too kind to animals, a mere joke as a cop.

We see her trying to meet their expectations of toughness as she deals with a young woman who keeps trying to tell her that her husband’s drowning of a dog in the bathtub, while their child is looking on, indicates that the man has an abusive, dangerous streak. The woman is sent away, after being told that after all her husband hasn’t actually harmed her or the child, but much later Emily witnesses the scene after the same man has drowned that woman in the bathtub–whereupon Emily, who by now has established herself as very much in control of her emotions, starts to cry.

This story-within-a-story has little connection to the main plot–Hank’s search for the truth about his son, but it is very directly related to a more general point that the movie is making, in its quiet but definite way: A country that teaches its young people to admire thugs and violence is in big trouble, and the wars it sends them to fight will have a way of turning them into calloused shadows of their former selves.

–As we find out only slowly, as Hank visits sleazy places to question people who might remember his son. He has traveled to Arizona, where his son’s base is, and what we see are bleak little diners, chicken shacks, strip clubs, the kinds of places found near a military base, hangouts for the soldiers during their time off.

Hank’s encounters with the topless women are a study in a guy who has been trained to be “decent.” He keeps his eyes away from their inflated bosoms though the young men who constitute the rest of the customers stare appreciatively. Hank might have been like them when younger. Now he’s older–and looking for a son who’s disappeared.

The bleak scene is at its bleakest when we see the crime scene.  A couple of times we see a bunch of tumbleweed pulled away from a hole where it has been concealing some of the horror. The tumbleweed is one of the few bits of nature visible. Some of us might be reminded of one of the famous cowboy Roy Rogers’s signature songs, “Tumbling Tumbleweed,” and recall that the tumbleweed is one of the symbols in the Western movies, also known as shoot-em-ups, that were the steady diet of our US childhood.

Off in one corner of that desert landscape is a neon sign:  GUNS.

Midway through the movie we are prepared to accept that Mike has met his death in a horrible way, probably at the hands of some of his buddies. But the movie doesn’t let us off so easily. There is more horror yet to come.

As if it isn’t bad enough for Hank and Joan Deerfield to have lost both sons to the military, they (or at least Hank–we’re not sure he will tell his wife all of the details he eventually learns) are going to have to realize that Mike himself was as brutalized by the military system and its rules as the others.

Whether or not the scene where Mike calls Hank just after having run over a child with his military vehicle actually happened or is Hank’s idea of something that could have happened doesn’t much matter. What matters is that in that scene, Hank probably let his son down badly. The son who was appealing to him for help didn’t really get it.

The movie opens with Hank, the proud veteran, showing a man, who happens to be from El Salvador, how to do his job of hoisting the US flag, which was hanging upside down. He lectures the man, much as he himself was probably lectured in military training, on the meaning of a flag flown upside down: “It means we’re in a whole lot of trouble, so come save our ass because we don’t have  a prayer in hell of saving ourselves.”

The movie’s eye is on the upcoming generation, but in an understated way. There is Emily’s son David, who hears a bedtime story from Hank–the story of David and Goliath, in which Hank emphasizes David’s courage in being willing to tackle the giant with just five stones and a slingshot.

Later we see Emily retelling the story to David, who asks, “But why would he let him fight a giant? I mean, when he was just a boy?”–to which she replies that she doesn’t know. David persists: “Wouldn’t he have been scared?” Her answer–while the scene shifts to Hank looking somberly at Mike’s Army photo):  “Yeah, I think he would’ve been really scared.”

When Hank makes his last trip to his son’s barracks to pick up his duffel bag, he stops to stare at the young man who is just coming in to take the empty cot and locker. We get only a glimpse of him but he is clearly very young, with his freshly cropped Army haircut. Earlier in the story, during Hank’s first visit to the barracks, he notes an empty cot–and is casually told, “We lost a man.”

The extent to which the war has dehumanized Mike and his buddies is clear enough when one of them blithely tells how hungry they all were right after murdering their buddy–and how they all went to the chicken place to eat. The pale stricken faces of Emily and Hank upon hearing this brief account speak volumes: Now they know just how grim things have become.

The acting is superb throughout this movie–particularly Charlize Theron as Emily and Tommy Lee Jones as Hank.  It is one of the best movies I’ve seen in a long time.
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