War story has all the twists of a good mystery
The title of the film In the Valley of Elah comes from the story of David and Goliath, who battled in the valley. Its tagline, "Sometimes finding the truth is easier than facing it," exemplifies its story completely.
When Vietnam veteran Hank Deerfield’s (Tommy Lee Jones) son Mike Deerfield (Jonathan Tucker) goes missing from active duty, the father doesn’t accept the military’s vague answers regarding his son’s whereabouts and decides to investigate everything himself.
The screenplay, written by director Paul Haggis, the man behind the screenplays of Academy Award-winners Million Dollar Baby and Crash, is loosely based on Richard Davis, a veteran who was murdered days after returning to America from Iraq in 2003.
Hank Deerfield visits his son’s living quarters on the Army base and manages to steal his cell-phone, despite the Army’s strict rule against removing property from its base. This is a major turning point of the film, because the information he acquires from the phone ends up helping him find out the truth about his son.
Just when it seems as though Hank Deerfield is on the right trail to finding out exactly how, and by who, his son was murdered, there is another twist. Alongside Hank Deerfield in his quest for the truth is Detective Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron), one of the few concerned officials at her apathetic police department. Because the murder of Mike Deerfield occurred right on the border of the military property and the town, there are legal specifics that make the case more intricate.
The relentless Sanders uses all of her resources as a detective to slowly but surely discover the truth. One of the most crucial examples of this is when she threatens a military official to arrest the thousands of soldiers who go out on the weekends for driving under the influence because the official is refusing to let her interview Mike Deerfield’s fellow soldiers who know what happened to him.
While Elah is clearly a murder mystery, it also features social commentary on the war in Iraq, such as a scene where Mike Deerfield is driving a tank and is instructed by a fellow soldier to continue driving the vehicle down the street despite the fact that a young Iraqi boy has run into the middle of it to pick up a ball that rolled there. Mike Deerfield, though he wants to, doesn’t stop the tank because he is being shouted at to not do so, and the boy is run over and killed.
Mike Deerfield then gets out of the tank, despite the instruction of the other soldier to stay inside, and takes a picture of the slain boy on his cell-phone, a picture that he later sends to his father. Later that day, a teary-eyed Mike Deerfield calls his father (who encouraged his son to join the military because he is a war veteran) in America, telling him, "You’ve got to get me out here."
Despite the underlying commentary and a plot full of twists, Elah comes together cohesively. Hank Deerfield doesn’t find all that he is looking for, but at least he finds the truth, as painful as it is.