The Army has not released Iraqi casualty reports, but it’s estimated as many as 100 enemy died during this exchange, and bodies were reported to be “piled in the streets.” The hours following the initial gunfight saw such carnage that the men of B Company were calling ambush alley “the midtown massacre.”
— Mark Boal, “Death and Dishonor”
“Freedom is on the march, and we’re safer because of it.” As soon as you hear President Bush on a background TV, during the first moments of In the Valley of Elah, you’ll likely guess what’s at issue. If you don’t know precisely that he first made this pronouncement in September 2004, you understand its use here is ironic. Punctuated throughout by similar bits of commentary and rhetoric, the movie takes the Iraq war as a point of departure, tracing the costs of war both physical and emotional, in Iraq and back home. In fact, the film submits, no one is “safer because of it.”
The most obvious and metaphorical victim is Mike Deerfield (Jonathan Tucker), a young soldier just back from Iraq. At film’s start, his father Hank (Tommy Lee Jones), a Vietnam war vet and retired MP, gets word from Fort Rudd that Mike’s gone AWOL. Sure that his son would never run off without a reason, Hank hops in his pickup truck and drives straight through to New Mexico from Tennessee. On arriving in the desert, he learns that Mike is in fact murdered, stabbed 42 times and left by the side of a road late at night. Because the body was found between military and local police jurisdictions, questions come up as to who should investigate. The Army wants the case, the cops don’t much care. But Hank does. And so the movie becomes his investigation — into the murder, the military, and masculinity.
Based on Mark Boal’s “Death and Dishonor,” which first appeared in May 2004’s Playboy magazine, Paul Haggis’ follow-up film to the over-awarded Crash posits Hank as an old-school man of honor, both punished and revered for his traditional “values.” Like Crash, it overstates banal points and overlooks more disturbing insights. It layers blame and guilt upon grief and loss, but reaches exasperatingly superficial conclusions. While the film presents a raft of sad and thoughtful characters — from Hank to his despondent wife Joan (Susan Sarandon) to Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron), the hardworking single mom detective who takes up Mike’s case — it remains fixed on its initial assumptions, that the war makes monsters of young men (and the focus here is specifically men, mostly white), then abandons them.
Indeed, the film reveals varieties of abandonment, as means of meeting or avoiding responsibility: a young woman who fears her boyfriend is dismissed by the police; Emily’s young son doesn’t know his father; and Hank leaves Joan to her worry and sorrow back home. Their phone calls are devastating. She sobs and he, also heartbroken, can offer no comfort except to promise to solve the case. Like many a movie hero before him, Hank asserts that if he can only set right what seems askew, he will have done his duty and reset his little piece of the universe. Even if he knows this isn’t what Joan needs, it’s what he needs, to be a man in the most efficient, self-defining, and uncompromising sense.
Susan Sarandon and Tommy Lee Jones
Charlize Theron as Det. Emily Sanders
Almost immediately, Hank confronts disorder extending far beyond the brutal murder. Stealing Mike’s cell phone from his bunk at Fort Rudd, Hank discovers fragmented footage from Baghdad. Hoping for clues to what went wrong for Mike, he enlists the help of a local tech, never named (Rick Gonzalez), who works on the deciphering on his off hours, sending Hank reconstructed bits by email. That these missives arrive irregularly (and also conveniently, when Hank’s quest needs narrative prodding) makes them seem at once crucial and random. What they reveal, little by little, is what you have already guessed: Mike saw and committed atrocities in Iraq. And he was horrified.
It becomes clear in flashbacks that Mike tried to contact Hank while still in country, and his father rebuffed him by phone, essentially urging him to man up. This peek into Hank’s brittle psyche fits with the brief glimpses of his marriage (Joan blames Hank for Mike’s decision to enlist), jarring his concept of paternal and patriotic obligations. Hank’s pursuit of his “truth” is complicated and nuanced by Jones’ singular intensity (a close-up of his deeply creased face does more emotional work than pages of dialogue), but still, he is quite obviously part of the problem, a true believer.
Hank is eventually pushed to question himself, though not by the usual obstructions, the New Mexico cops (whose captain [Josh Brolin] looks shady for the two minutes he’s on screen) and the MPs, headed by Lt. Kirklander (Jason Patric), trying to smooth over what he sees as a burgeoning PR crisis. Hank is instead moved by Emily, herself harassed by the men in her squad precisely because she is a woman. Where the soldiers discuss the excitement of combat and the male detectives share a measure of cynicism, Emily repeatedly appears isolated and lonely, framed in doorways or against the wide New Mexican sky, not “safe” at all. When Hank tells her she can’t understand what it’s like to be part of a unit because she’s never “been to war,” you’ve already seen that she daily faces another kind of trauma at the hands of her so-called unit. Where Hank trusts in the loyalty of masculine, combat-forged company, she sees rupture, competition, and cruelty.
If this difference is instructive, Elah does less well in considering the racism beneath the surface of the “unit.” As Elah focuses on its underdog against the giant storyline (the title taken from the site where David slew Goliath), Hank is shocked to see his son’s malice against “hajiis” in Iraq. And he can’t see his own abuses of a Mexican American soldier he deems “Chico.”
When at last, Hank has a heart-heart minute with the young man, Private Ortiez (Victor Wolf), their faces are turned away from one another, Ortiez’s bruised following a recent run-in with Hank. As the camera frames them as near-mirror images, Hank is suddenly less different from Ortiez than he thinks. The private remembers being in Iraq and wanting only to come home. Now, he says softly, he only wants to go back. While many movie-style military men have voiced this desire, here it seems tragic. The horrors of the war have changed his sense of time and self, he no longer feels “at home” anywhere. And now you see that Hank has never been home either, never at ease with Joan or Mike, that his sense of order is artificial and dissonant. The close shot of Ortiez’s expression, sad and self-knowing, is more effective than the rest of the film’s point-pounding.