In this age of never-ending sequels and over-produced films, it is rare that a movie really knocks you off your feet emotionally. Even the serious "message movies" often seem trite, like they were simply made because it is in vogue to make a political statement against the government.
"In the Valley of Elah" will knock you off your feet. Not with action, plot twists or political statements but with the sheer power of a well told story and Oscar-worthy acting.
At its center "Elah" is a crime thriller with a murder mystery to solve and a dogged investigator to solve it. The difference here is the murder victim is a recently returned U.S. soldier and the dogged investigator is his retired ex-military father, Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones). The story of finding his son's killer through the red tape of the U.S. military with the help of Det. Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron) takes a back seat to the over-arching themes of the film: parenthood, faith and how the war affects the soldiers who fight it but also the people back home.
The acting is brilliant, with Jones offering the best performance of his career from beginning to end. The levels of emotion he shows as he uncovers more and more about his dead son are all kept behind his stony lined face with perfect restraint. Counter this with far too brief conversations with his wife — and now mother of two dead boys — Joan (Susan Sarandon), with her visible grief and sorrow, and you have horribly powerful scenes that can shake you to the core.
What really separates the film is that it refuses to pick a side or make a hero out of anyone. The movie is blatantly honest in it's representation of everyone; bravely showing flaws not only in its villains (if there are any) but also in its heroes — even a murdered soldier. It never points the finger at anyone proudly proclaiming that the film has it right and we should all listen, it just makes the point that we as a people, as a country as a world might need a little help.
You won’t find a big bad villain to point your finger at during "In the Valley of Elah." You won’t find a flag-waving patriotic hero either. You will find a little truth, a little reality. In a cinematic world of mostly brainless fun and heavy political commentary, the most powerful feature of "In the Valley of Elah" is that it treats everyone as humans — flawed and troubled, but human.
<1b>— Matthew Razak