In the Valley of Elah

Movie review by
Cynthia Fuchs, Common Sense Media
In the Valley of Elah Movie Poster Image
Intense, mature murder mystery tackles Iraq war.
  • R
  • 2007
  • 125 minutes

Parents say

No reviews yetAdd your rating

Kids say

No reviews yetAdd your rating

Did this review miss something on diversity?

Research shows a connection between kids' healthy self-esteem and positive, diverse representations in books, TV shows, and movies. Want to help us help them? Suggest a diversity update

A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Suspects lie during a murder investigation; references to a female detective having slept with her commander; film raises questions about military objectives and training, as well as soldiers' lack of discipline in Iraq and back home. Male detectives taunt the only woman in their unit, and some racism is displayed toward Mexican Americans.


Frequent violence and images showing the results of violence. Cell phone footage shows explosions, gunfire, and shots of bodies on the roadside, as well as U.S. soldiers in Iraq hitting a child with a vehicle (off screen, but loud noise and verbal reactions), and a soldier torturing a man (below screen) by twisting a finger in his wound. Murder victim's body is briefly visible; discussion of his multiple stab wounds. Background TV footage refers to and briefly shows war images, including Fallujah 2004, when contractors were killed and burned in front of TV cameras. Veterans discuss trauma in war zone (watching, suffering, committing violence). Brief shot of woman's bloody body. Hank slams a man with his truck door, leaving him bloody. Detectives wield guns.


Female dancers sport naked breasts in a strip bar scene. Stripper speaks to Hank while she's nude from the waist up (viewers see her breasts full-on). Discussion of soldiers seeking out prostitutes. Discussion of Emily having slept with her unit chief by fellow detectives who resent her promotion to their ranks.


Some salty soldier language, including repeated uses of "f--k" (over 20, one with "mother"), as well as "hell," "ass" and "a--hole," "s--t," "son of a bitch," "damn," and "p---y." Pejorative use of "chico" to refer to a Mexican-American solider.



Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Background cigarette smoking; characters drink several times (liquor, beer) in a bar and in a truck (two men share a bottle of Jim Beam). Discussion of a soldier trying to "score meth."

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that this contemplative, slow-moving mystery/drama isn't for kids. Its focus on military culture and wartime trauma yields images of chaotic, violent combat footage (much of this is shown in choppy, handheld cell phone video that can be hard to see/interpret). The movie's central murder is discussed frequently, and morgue scenes show the victim's mother's grief, as well as a brief glimpse of the body itself (there's another quick shot of an additional victim's body later on). Strippers are bare-breasted, and characters discuss a female detective who slept with her boss. Strong language includes many uses of "f--k," plus other profanity ("s--t," "p---y," "ass," etc.), and some disparaging terms used to describe Mexican Americans.

User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say

There aren't any reviews yet. Be the first to review this title.

There aren't any reviews yet. Be the first to review this title.

What's the story?

Structured as a series of mysteries, IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH layers blame and guilt upon grief and loss. The most obvious mystery is the murder of Mike Deerfield (Jonathan Tucker), a young soldier just back from Iraq and stationed at New Mexico's Fort Rudd. Teaming with the civilian detective (Charlize Theron) assigned to the case, Mike's father, Hank (Tommy Lee Jones), a career officer, Vietnam War vet and retired MP, vows to find the truth. Like many a movie hero before him, Hank asserts that if he can only set right what's askew, he'll have done his duty and reset his little piece of the universe. But as the evidence trickles in, each bit reveals more about the trauma Mike experienced -- and inflicted -- in Baghdad. 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 he's still quite obviously part of the problem, a true military believer.

Is it any good?

Like his award-winning Crash, Paul Haggis' war-centric drama is heavy-handed, raising important questions about military culture and masculinity, but finding only superficial answers. While the film is instructive in underscoring different perceptions of the military (where Hank trusts in the loyalty of masculine, combat-forged company, Emily sees rupture, competition, and cruelty), Elah does less well in considering the racism beneath the unit's surface.

Nonetheless, one scene in which Hank confronts a Mexican-American private named Ortiez (Victor Wolf) proves particularly affecting. 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, much as Hank has also never been "home" with Joan or his son. The close shot of Ortiez's expression, sad and self-knowing, is more effective than the rest of the film's point-pounding.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the impact of violent war imagery. Ask kids where they see disturbing images most -- on TV or the Internet -- and ask them how they deal with what they see. Families can also discuss what messages the movie is sending about war and the military. Is it the job of movies and TV shows to examine important social issues and current events? What other movies can you think of that have handled big topics in a similar way? How do the relationships within the movie affect its impact on you as a viewer? Is Hank a good father? Why or why not?

Movie details

Our editors recommend

Common Sense Media's unbiased ratings are created by expert reviewers and aren't influenced by the product's creators or by any of our funders, affiliates, or partners.

See how we rate

Streaming options powered by JustWatch

About these links

Common Sense Media, a nonprofit organization, earns a small affiliate fee from Amazon or iTunes when you use our links to make a purchase. Thank you for your support.

Read more

Our ratings are based on child development best practices. We display the minimum age for which content is developmentally appropriate. The star rating reflects overall quality.

Learn how we rate