In the Valley of Elah (2007)

Rated R. Our ratings: V- 5; L- 5; S/N-1 . Running time: 2 hours

O Lord, how long shall I cry for help,
and you will not listen?
Or cry to you ‘Violence!’
and you will not save?
Why do you make me see wrongdoing
and look at trouble?
Destruction and violence are before me;
strife and contention arise.
Habakkuk 1:2-3

Now Saul, and they, and all the men of Israel, were in the valley of Elah, fighting with the Philistines. David rose early in the morning, left someone in charge of the sheep, took the provisions, and went as Jesse had commanded him 1 Samuel 17:19-20

Hank talks with Officer Emily Sanders.
(c) 2007 Warner Independent Pictures

Like a lamentation by the ancient prophets Jeremiah or Habakkuk, this moving film is not meant to send us out of the theater feeling good. Writer/director Paul Haggis has chosen the mystery/thriller genre to explore the dark miasma settling on the nation as a result of horrific experiences in Iraq. Haggis uses the story of David and Goliath as a symbol of courage, thus linking an ancient time of war with the present day one. Yet his story of a father searching for the truth about his son shows how complex the issues of war today are when compared to the simpler story of David’s fight against Goliath. Or was it?

Tommy Lee Jones’ performance as retired military policeman Hank Deerfield is Oscar caliber. He is searching for his just-back-from Iraq son who has gone A.W.O.L. Was he murdered, and if so, is the Army covering it up? During his search, aided by Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron), a small town woman police officer, he finds more than he bargained for, the symbolic ending strongly declaring that as a people we are in deep trouble because of what our “War on Terror” is doing to the psyches of our soldiers. Considerable swearing and violence make the film unsuitable for family viewing, but offers a great opportunity for adults to reflect together upon war-time violence and its effects. It is not surprising that this well-crafted film has not done well at the box office, but it is one that every American concerned for the nation should see.

For Reflection/Discussion

The following contains spoilers.

1) Were you expecting the usual mystery story at the beginning of the film? At what point did you suspect it was something more?

2) How does the flag incident in which Hank instructs the immigrant school janitor how to display the flag properly prepare you for what follows? What does flying our flag upside down mean?

3) How does Hank’s telling the Biblical story of young David help the boy? What does this show about the power of a good story? If you have (or work with) children, what stories do you tell or read to them? What effect, beyond entertainment, do you hope the stories will have on the listener(s)?

4) How does the story of David connect with the larger story of a father searching for his son? What happened to the grown-up David’s favorite son?

5) How is the nickname “Doc” ironical when we discover the truth about Hank’s son? How is this a good example of what war can do to a “good person” ? What effect has it had on the son’s comrades?

6) What does the final scene say about Hank’s (and thus the filmmaker’s) view of what is happening to our country? Do you agree, or disagree. Why? What do you think can be done to change things? Especially by the churches—perhaps stand and keep watch with Habakkuk? Where do you see God in this dark film? Perhaps beckoning us to follow and do his work?