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Movie Review

When Army Specialist Mike Deerfield returns from his tour of duty in Iraq, his family doesn't get a phone call from him. But four days later, they get a call from his unit with the announcement that he's gone AWOL. His father, Hank, knows right away that that kind of behavior is out of character for Mike, so he makes the two-day drive to a fictional Army base in New Mexico to track down his son.

Too soon, the retired military policeman discovers that his son is not just missing, but dead. And that he's been brutally murdered to boot. He teams up with a reluctant local police detective, Emily Sanders, to probe the truth surrounding Mike's death. And they begin to realize that the Stateside murder is inextricably tied up in events that took place half a world away in Iraq—things the Army doesn't want anyone to know about.

Positive Elements

As a dad, Hank's devotion to his son and to finding the truth—even if it's painful—is admirable. Not that he's a real warm guy. In fact, he's a stereotypical career military man who has a hard time showing affection. He can't even apologize properly. But he is utterly devoted as a father. Once he begins working with Sanders, who is a single mom, he becomes something of a father figure to her young son David as well. Through a bedtime story that Hank tells David, In the Valley of Elah offers some wise words about courage and standing one's ground. That advice is reiterated later in a tender conversation between Emily and David.

Spiritual Content

The title of the film comes from the story of David and Goliath. (It's where that historic face-off occurred.) Hank tells the tale to David, on account of the boy's sharing a name with the biblical king. But both of the movie's references to the Bible story leave God out completely, focusing instead on courage and standing up to one's enemies. When Emily protests that the story isn't true, Hank defends it, saying, "Of course it's true. It's even in the Quran." The David and Goliath reference is meant to parallel Hank's battle to find out the truth about his son and the battle between U.S. troops and Iraqi insurgents, though the metaphor is barely explored.

Hank prays silently before a meal and David imitates him. Hank also asks the officer who shows him Mike's quarters if he can take his son's Bible with him. (He lies about his motivations for doing so.)

Sexual Content

The makers of Elah do their best to realistically portray the "entertainment" tastes of unmarried men living in Army barracks. Nude and mostly-nude pinups adorn the walls. Soldiers visit topless bars and strip clubs. As Hank tries to track down his son, he also visits some of these establishments. (But expresses nonverbal distaste for having to do so.) Thus, audiences are exposed to pole-dancers wearing only g-string panties. Soldiers are shown waving dollar bills at the girls to entice them to dance closer. And one dancer presses her bare breasts against a man's face, allowing him to nuzzle her briefly. Hank asks a topless waitress if she can identify Mike from a photo.

When Mike first goes missing, other men in his unit joke that he must have found a really amazing woman to hook up with. Later a soldier says that Mike was in a group of men who hired a hooker to "blow" each of them. Showering soldiers are shown from behind. Sanders' co-workers accuse her of sleeping her way into her detective job. The f-word is used to indicate sex several times.

Violent Content

Little violence is actually shown, but much is implied. We see the mangled remains of Mike's body in three or four different scenes. And we watch his parents as they view his dismembered corpse. A detective explains the methods used to kill him: He was stabbed more than 40 times, then dismembered with a dull knife, doused in flammable liquid and burned.

In the police department office, a woman describes how her soldier husband has killed their dog. Later, it's determined that he has killed her in the same way—and her dead body is shown in a bathtub. Garbled video extracted from Mike's cell phone shows the torture of Iraqi prisoners, some shooting and bodies burned by bombing. A soldier is said to have hanged himself in his quarters, and the camera examines the deep indentations from the rope as it focuses on his neck and head.

Thinking he's found the guy who killed his son, Hank knocks him down with the door of his moving pickup and proceeds to beat him with a large wrench. Sanders tries to stop him and gets her nose broken by his backswing. (Both the suspect and Hank are arrested.)

[Spoiler Warning] The men who killed Mike were his friends from his infantry squad—all of them so messed up in the head that they didn't know what they were doing. It is also revealed that a particular incident during their first week in Iraq contributed to their emotional and psychological disarray: A standing order was given for convoys not to stop for any object or person in the street. This order led to Mike running over and killing an Iraqi child.

Crude or Profane Language

Again, the attempt to realistically communicate the kind of vulgar language used in the movie's settings creates quite an assault on viewers. Almost 3 dozen f-words front the attack, and about a dozen s-words fall in line, along with more than 20 milder profanities and crude exclamations. There are a couple of obscene gestures. Hank unleashes a few hateful ethnic putdowns. And Jesus' name is abused a handful of times.

Drug and Alcohol Content

Circumstantial evidence in the murder investigation indicates that Mike was involved in drugs and drug smuggling, and that he may have been killed by members of a Mexican drug-running gang. A military detective says that he found drug paraphernalia under Mike's mattress, and a friend says that on the night he was killed, Mike wanted to go find some methamphetamine. Another solider in Mike's unit apparently enlisted in the Army so that he could get a break on a drug-pushing sentence.

Soldiers drink in bars and strip clubs. Knowing that drinking and smoking are quick ways to connect with the soldiers he's trying to question, Hank often shares a smoke with or buys a drink for a GI. He also orders beer in several restaurants and bars.

Other Negative Elements

To further his unofficial investigation, Hank takes Mike's cell phone out of his drawer in his barracks room, even though he's been told not to take anything. Men in Mike's unit lie in sworn statements about when they last saw him. Sanders threatens and blackmails the military detective.


There are some who have opposed the war in Iraq from its beginning because of philosophical pacifism, disdain for the current U.S. President or flat-out denial that the "war on terror" needs to be waged in the Middle East. Others, meanwhile, keep being optimistic about the current military campaign, supporting the President and refusing to believe that the situation is as dismal as the news media would have us believe. That latter group sits in Elah's gun sights, while the former serves as its appreciative target audience.

When all is said and done, the murder mystery that consumes most of the movie's screen time is about as complex as that of an hour-long TV drama. It's interesting enough, but relatively routine. So somebody had to add something to turn this story into a feature film. That something is the methodical portrayal—via Tommy Lee Jones' character, Hank Deerfield—of all the standing conventional wisdom about soldiers and their mental, moral and emotional makeup. Then, just as methodically, the film tears down those traditional ideas with the argument that Iraq is different from any war ever fought.

If you believe director Paul Haggis' artistic vision—a veritable diatribe against the Iraq war that starts out depressing and ends up preachy—a soldier setting foot in Iraq will begin going crazy and do immoral things he never would have done before. Further, it would seem that U.S. soldiers in Iraq have standing orders that force them to kill innocent children. And finally, taking In the Valley of Elah at face value leaves audiences with the impression that soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder are unable to take responsibility for their actions.

[Spoiler Warning] Inspired by the murder of Richard Thomas Davis in July 2003, In the Valley of Elah simplifies the story and links the killing more concretely to events in Iraq than the real-life investigation has ever done. Moreover, it hangs the soldiers' mental and emotional trauma on orders that seem to be unethical. In reality, orders for convoys to keep moving likely were given as a response to repeated Iraqi attacks. Here, in an unfair indictment of military commanders, we see those orders being followed in a way that is neither necessary nor realistic.

To give credit where it's due, both Richard Davis' story and In the Valley of Elah raise important questions about recruiting standards, the treatment of PTSD, and other post-combat mental and emotional issues. But Haggis' proposed solution—run up a distress signal and get out of Iraq at all costs—comes nowhere near answering those questions even as it tries to emotionally strong-arm us into believing that a solution has been offered. And that's after assaulting us with the most unsavory habits of some American soldiers.

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Tommy Lee Jones as Sgt. Hank Deerfield; Charlize Theron as Emily Sanders; Susan Sarandon as Joan Deerfield; Jonathan Tucker as Spc. Mike Deerfield; Jason Patric as Lt. Kirklander; Wes Chatham as Cpl. Steve Penning; Jake McLaughlin as Spc. Gordon Bonner; Mehcad Brooks as Spc. Ennis Long


Paul Haggis ( )


Warner Independent Pictures



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Lindy Keffer

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