Last Friday Rogert Ebert delivered, for my money, the most perceptive and best-written review of In The Valley of Elah that I’ve seen anywhere.
“I don’t think there’s a scene in the movie that could be criticized as ‘acting,’with quotation marks,” Ebert observes. “When Susan Sarandon, who has already lost one son to the Army, now finds she has lost both, what she says to [her husband] Tommy Lee Jones over the telephone is filled with bitter emotion but not given a hint of emotional spin. She says it the way a woman would, if she had held the same conversation with this man for a lifetime.
“The movie is about determination, doggedness, duty and the ways a war changes a man. There is no release or climax at the end, just closure. Even the final dramatic gesture only says exactly what Deerfield explained earlier that it says, and nothing else.
“That tone follows through to the movie’s consideration of the war itself. Those who call In the Valley of Elahanti-Iraq war will not have been paying attention. It doesn’t give a damn where the war is being fought. Hank Deerfield isn’t politically opposed to the war. He just wants to find out how his son came all the way home from Iraq and ended up in charred pieces in a field. Because his experience in Vietnam apparently had a lot to do with crime investigation, he’s able to use intelligence as well as instinct.
“And observe how Charlize Theron, as the detective, observes him, takes what she can use and adds what she draws from her own experience.”
Ebert got one tiny thing wrong, though. He quotes an early back-and-forth in which Jones tells Sarandon he’s going to drive to the New Mexico military base where his son was stationed and do some poking around. “It’s a two-day drive,” she says. Jones’ reply, according to Ebert, is “Not the way I’ll drive it.” Nope — he actually says, “For some people.”