A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
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.
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?
- In theaters: September 14, 2007
- On DVD or streaming: February 19, 2008
- Cast: Charlize Theron, Susan Sarandon, Tommy Lee Jones
- Director: Paul Haggis
- Studio: Warner Independent
- Genre: Drama
- Run time: 125 minutes
- MPAA rating: R
- MPAA explanation: violent and disturbing content, language and some sexuality/nudity.
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