In the Valley of Elah (2007)




Director:     Paul Haggis.

Starring:     Tommy Lee Jones (Hank Deerfield),  Charlize Theron (Det. Emily Sanders),  Jason Patric (Lt. Kirklander),  Susan Sarandon (Joan Deerfield),  James Franco (Sgt. Dan Carnelli),  Barry Corbin (Arnold Bickman),  Josh Brolin (Chief Buchwald),  Frances Fisher (Evie),  Wes Chatham (Cpl. Steve Penning),  Jake McLaughlin (Spc. Gordon Bonner),  Mehcad Brooks (Spc. Ennis Long),  Jonathan Tucker (Spc. Mike Deerfield),  Wayne Duvall (Detective Nugent), Victor Wolf (Pvt. Robert Ortiez), Brent Briscoe (Detective Hodge).

parents search for their missing military son suffering from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) stemming from the Iraq War 


Spoiler Warning: below is a summary of the entire film. 

Hank Deerfield, retired military investigator, gets a call from his son Michael saying that something has happened in Iraq.  He wants his father to get him out of there.  Dad keeps hearing the conversation over and over again. 

Someone shouts:  "Mike gets back on the fucking vehicle!"

Based on actual events.

November 1, 2004.  Monroe, Tennessee.  Hank gets a call from Fort Rudd, New Mexico saying that his son has gone AWOL.  His unit arrived from Iraq four days ago.  He tells him that his son has until Sunday or he will be listed as missing.  Hank checks his e-mail, but there is nothing of any help to Hank in finding his son.  Hank packs his back and heads out.  He is driving to New Mexico.  It's normally a two-day drive.  Heading out of town Hank sees the US flag flying upside down on a flagpole in front of a school.  He gets out and talks with the school maintenance man.  The fellow is from El Salvador and didn't realize what he had done.  Hank tells him that an upside down flag means that one is in a mess and desperately needs help.  They set it right-side up. 

Hanks wakes up in the morning parked at a rest area.  He takes a restroom break and then drives the rest of the way to Fort Rudd.  At the gate the guard passes Sergeant Deerfield straight through.  Hank wants to look at his son's quarters to see if he can learn something about his whereabouts.  They let him in.  Illegally, Hank takes his son's cell phone from the room.  He has a technician look at it.  There are photos on the phone as well as some home movies.  The first film Hank sees is of his son playing football with Iraqi children.  But the kids take his football and run away with it.  The technician points out that the phone is in bad condition.  It has been exposed to extremely hot temperatures.  It was in Iraq.  The guy tells Hank that for $100 dollars he will retrieve the damaged images, but it will take quite a while for the whole job.  Hank takes that deal.  The guy will send him the images as he finds time to work on them. 

One of the phone numbers listed on Michael's phone is of TDs, a strip club.  Hank goes to the bar and shows a picture of his son to the bartender.  He hasn't seen the fellow.  So Hank gets a motel room.  At night he talks with his wife.  Hank has a flashback to the disturbing telephone conversation he had with his son.  He tells his son that he can hardly hear him.  His son tells him:  "You got to get me out of here."

In the morning Hank goes to the police station.  A woman is talking with Detective Emily Sanders.  She is asking for help with her husband who drowned her Doberman Pincher in the bathtub because it bit him.  Emily tells her that since he is military, she has to take her problem to the military police.  The woman says she needs help.  Emily just repeats she has to go to the military police.  (The problem here seems to be that Emily is just not listening to the woman in a sympathetic manner.  Emily could have at least told her about many of the soldiers having PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder, and suggested that she seek psychiatric assistance.)  The woman gets very angry at Emily and tells her that Emily doesn't care about her and her problems.  She leaves.

Emily may be suffering herself from a bit of depression.  The stupid male cops are sexually harassing her.  They love to give her the animal cases, so they can make silly dog or other animal sounds while Emily interviews various people. 

When Emily finishes with the woman, Hank talks with her.  She tells him the same thing.  And she is equally unsympathetic.  He has to go to the military police.  Hank asks her to at least check for the last time his son used his credit card.   She repeats that he has to go to the military police.  Hank gets a bit hot under the collar and he tells her that his son served in Iraq for eighteen months and that he thinks his son deserves better than this.

Hank meets with an old buddy that he worked with in the investigative unit.  He tells his friend that his son David joined the 82nd Airborne and died ten years ago at Fort Bragg.  And now Michael is missing.  He asks his friend if any of the men they knew are still in the investigative unit?  His buddy tells him they are all gone.  At night Hanks talks with his wife.  She is very worried about her son.  He tells her that he's a good boy and he'll have a reason for being missing.

Body parts have been found  in the brush alongside a dead-end road.  Meanwhile, Hank checks out more of the images from his son's cell phone.  It looks like some trouble developed in the truck in Iraq between Michael and another fellow.  At the crime scene Emily is there.  She finds a hand all burned.  The military police come out to investigate.  The body was chopped up and burned.  But the body was found in the area that belongs to the army.  So the crime is not the case of the police, but of the army. 

Hank gets a visit from one of the policemen.  The fellow tells Hank they found a body and it is the body of his son.  Hank immediately wants to know what happened and demands to see the body.  At the military morgue, the man in charge advises Hank not to look at the remains.  But Hank insists on seeing what's left of his son.  The doctor tells Hank that his son was dismembered and then parts were eaten by scavengers.  His son died of multiple stab wounds.  He counted forty-two stab wounds that reached the bone.  One knife. 

Hank learns that it was reported that a green sedan was parked at the crime scene on the night of the crime.  Hank wants to see where Michael died, but he is told the area is still an active crime scene.  Lt. Kirklander asks Hank if  Michael could have been a drug mule mixed up with the Mexican drug gangs around the border area with Mexico?  He asks because Michael had his hands and head cut off, which is a signature move used by the drug gangs. 

Hank goes back to the police station to wait for Emily.  At the end of her shift she comes out.  She tells him that she is really sorry about his son.  Hank says:  "Show me!"  He adds:  "Show me where he died!"   Emily is reluctant but then takes him out to the crime scene.  Hank looks around and is disgusted at the degraded crime scene.  There were too many investigators trampling the crime asrea.  He tells Emily that there are traces of blood on the gravel at the side of the road.  The murder occurred there and then his body was dragged from here to where they found the body.  They wanted to get the body out from under the light of the street light.

Hank walks over to the gun shop nearby.  The owners tell Hank that the area smelled like burned meat as if someone was having a barbecue on the night of the crime.  Hank returns to Emily and tells her that the car was not green, but blue.  The yellow light of the street light on the blue car made it look like a green car. Emily drops him off at his motel.   Hank speaks with his wife Joan on the telephone.  She tells him that she wants to join him, saying: "I need to be with my boy."  Hank doesn't want her to see the state of the remains.  Joan keeps insisting so he finally tells her that there is nothing left.  This shocks Joan.  She asks her husband couldn't he have left her with at least one of her sons?  She cries.  Hank can't stand crying so he tells her goodbye. 

Hank gets some more images from Michael's cell phone.  Michael films the charred bodies of burned Iraqis in a room.  Someone puts a red devil smiley sticker on the blackened forehead of  a woman.  Hank goes to another bar where his son would go.  He is shocked when he suddenly finds out that the female bartender works topless.  She can't help Hank either. 

Emily is given a case of a tortured chicken.  Her male colleagues make stupid chicken clucking noises.  She walks over to them and asks how did she get assigned to this case?  They accuse her of having screwed her way into their detective squad.  This makes Emily mad and she tells the men that Michael was killed in their jurisdiction.  He was killed by the side of the road and then his body was moved from there.  This leaves the guys speechless. 

She goes in to speak to her captain.  He is not pleased with her either.  He says they only solved three of the last ten murder cases.  He doesn't want another murder case.  The captain wants Emily to let the military handle the matter.  Emily says she doesn't trust the military.  They are more interested in covering up the crime than investigating the crime.   He accuses Emily of trying to show up her colleagues and asks her can't she get along with anyone?  She gets mad and tells him to his face that he doesn't want to take the case so it won't make him look worse in the next election.  So the captain finally gives up and lets her take the case.  He calls army Captain Fenderman to notify him of the change.

Joan looks at her son's remains through a window.  She asks is that everything?  Is that all of him?  She asks to go inside the room, but they won't permit it.  Hank takes Joan to the airport.  She kisses him goodbye and goes into the airport. 

Sgt. Dan Carnelli from the base comes out to the motel to give Hank his son's Bible.  Mike invites him to have a drink.  The guy agrees.  Hank asks him if Michael was doing drugs?  Sergeant Dan says:  "I guess."  Most of the guys do some drugs.  He says that Mike loved the army.  The sergeant then says that in his opinion they should just nuke Iraq and turn it all back to dust. At night Joan calls Hank to tell him that she has a package sent from Michael to himself.  Hank tells her not to open it; just put it someplace safe.   

Hank speaks with Emily.  She tells him that they believe his son was killed Saturday night or Sunday morning.  The last time his credit card was used was at the local chicken shack.  Hank wants to go with her to the chicken shack.  Hank looks at the amount of the bill from the chicken shack.  He asks how much does a person usually spend eating at the chicken shack?  About $7 dollars is the answer.  The bill is almost $22 dollars.  Hank says there must have been at least three people who ate here.

Emily goes to see army Lt. Kirklander.  He is not very cooperative with her and she gets mad at him.  He tells her:  "I'm just not in the mood to give a shit."  At night she has Hank over to dinner.  He meets her son.  After dinner he asks her if he can be of any help to her.  So Emily gives him a book of bed time stories and tells him to read to David.  He feels a bit awkward and doesn't seem to like the book.  So David tells him to tell him a story he already knows.  So Hank tells him a Bible story about King David, who fought Goliath in the Valley of Elah. 

When Hank finishes his story Emily speaks with him.  She tells him that he's a good father.  He doesn't have to prove that he loved Michael.  "I'm sure he knew."  Back at the motel Hank sees a scene where his son is talking to him.  Michael calls out dad, daddy.  "Something happened dad!" 

Eating breakfast at the diner, a woman comes in and speaks to him.  He doesn't recognize her, so she tells him that she is Evie from the topless bar.  She tells him that she saw the picture of her son in the newspaper.  She says that when they first spoke she only thought that his was just missing. 

Hank goes to another strip joint.  The bartender there says that his son was causing a big disturbance there.  He was shouting obscenities at the dancers.  Michael and another army fellow fought in the parking lot.  When Hank sees Emily again he tells her that the army guys didn't do it.  But now he wants her to find out why Michael's army buddies all lied in their interviews and didn't mention a lot of things, including the fact that some of them were with his son.  TFrom a line-up of photos, he bartender points out the three guys who were at his bar creating a disturbance:  Michael, Cpl. Steve Penning and Spc. Ennis Long. 

Emily interviews the soldiers again.  She asks them why did they lie?  Their reason, they say, was that they didn't want his parents to find out about all the bad things Michael was into.  One of the many questionable things they had done was to use a prostitute.  And Michael did drugs.  Emily also asks why would they leave Michael out in the middle of no where?  Because Mike said he wanted to get some more meth.  Later Emily is given a picture of three military guys returning to base.  In the car with Penning and Long was Spc. Gordon Bonner. 

Hank goes through the recently restored cell phone images.  He notices Pvt. Robert Ortiez who he met that first night he came on the military base.  Emily and Hank go to see the military men again.  They asks specifically for Pvt. Robert Ortiez who name was not on the list.  They learn that he is AWOL.  Moreover, he has a history of being a real bad boy.  And he has a blue car.  Hank wants them to pick up Ortiez immediately.  But on what grounds?  Then they learn that Ortiez has four unpaid parking tickets.  A judge gives them permission to bring him in.  The police go after him.  Hank is forbidden to go but he follow them in his truck. 

Hank watches as the police prepare to grab Ortiez.  But it appears that no one is home.  Hank sees the fellow on the roof and shouts out a warning to the police.  The guy seems to be getting away so Hank tracks him in his truck.  When he appears on the road Hank catches up with him, opens his car door and slams it into Ortiez.  Ortiez goes down.  Hank jumps out of the truck and starts hitting Ortiez with a pipe.  Emily runs up to stop Hank, but Hank accidentally knocks her down as he draws back his striking arm. Emily has a bad bloody nose.  The other detectives grab Hank to stop him from hitting the man  anymore.   

At the station.  Emily is very mad at Hank.  He apologizes for bloodying her nose.  She tells him that he is very lucky because Ortiez didn't press charges against him.  And, by the way, there is no evidence that Ortiez had anything to do with the crime. 

There is a knock on Hank's motel door.  It's Emily.  She says something's happened.  It's one of the military guys.  It seems that Bonner has killed himself.  And Bonner has a blue car.  They go see the body. 

Emily is given some devastating news.  Does she remember the woman whose husband killed her dog?  Yes.  She has to go to her home.  At the home Emily sees a lot of police and sees the husband under arrest sitting in the back of a police car.  Emily goes into the house.  She goes to the bathroom and sees the body of the woman in the bathtub.  Alone again, Emily cries.  She begins a period of several days of her being in a blue funk.  She feels very guilty about how she treated the woman. 

Michael's flag-draped coffin is ready to be transported back to Monroe, Tennessee.  Hank has trouble starting his truck and gets help from Penning.  He asks Penning if Bonner killed his son?  Penning immediately says no, but then says he doesn't know. 

Emily looks over Michael's credit card receipts.  She suddenly realizes that the signature on the receipt from the chicken shack is not Michael's.  She looks at the handwriting of the military guys she interviewed.  It looks like Penning's hand-writing.  Hank comes to speak with Emily.  She says Michael wasn't at the chicken shack.  He was killed before that. 

Hank and Emily go back to Fort Rudd.  The military has news for the two civilians.  Lt. Kirklander tells them that Penning has come forward implicating Bonner and Long.  Emily objects that the civilian police have jurisdiction on this matter.  That may be, but Kirklander's commanding officer talked to her boss and so it's out of both their hands.  He says he's sorry.  She demands that she hear the confession from Penning himself.  Kirklander refuses.  So Emily says she will start catching the army fellows heading back to base and write up a whole bunch of DUIs on them.  Kirklander sets up an interview with Penning. 

Penning says that Michael was acting weird that night.  He was needling Bonner again and again.  They got into a heated argument and it looked like there was going to be another fight.  Then he, Penning, just started stabbing Michael over and over.  What did the other guys do?  They were stunned.  It was Bonner's idea to chop Michael's body up.  Hank asks him about a scene on the cell phone where a guy keeps screaming.  Penning laughs.  That was Mike torturing a prisoner.  He would stick his finger into the man's wound asking if it hurts there.  The guy would cry out in pain and say yes.  Then Michael would keep sticking his finger into the wound, asking the same question.   That's how he got his nickname of "Doc". 

With the help of some Jim Beam whisky, Hank speaks with Ortiez.  Ortiez tells him that he hated it over in Iraq.  Then Hank shows him a picture.  It looks like someone in a ditch in Iraq.  The only thing that Ortiez will say is they had a standing order not to stop, even if they hit someone.  Otherwise, it would set up the ideal conditions for an ambush.  The first week in Iraq there were six of them in the back of the vehicle.  Doc hit something.  He stopped and got out.  Then he got back in the vehicle and just drove away without a word.  Someone said they hit a kid.  But Ortiez says he doesn't believe it.  "We killed a dog." 

What actually happen is presented.  Bonner is in the passenger seat yells at Doc not to stop.  He shouts speed it up, speed it up!  They hit something.  Bonner keeps shouting to go, go!  But Mike stops the truck.  He gets out and takes a picture of the dead boy laying in the gutter.  Meanwhile, Bonner is screaming at Mike to get back in the truck.  That was the night Michael called his father saying something had happened.  The night Michael told his father that he had to get him out of Iraq.  But dad, who doesn't like emotion, doesn't even asks his upset son what's the matter.  Michael finishes the phone call without dad ever knowing what happened.  (No wonder even after four days home Michael didn't call his father.) 

Hank tells Emily goodbye and thank you.  He arrives home.  On the table he finds the package Michael send to himself.  Inside is a somewhat worn American flag.  There is also a note to his father along with a photograph of him with his unit.  Hanks turns off the light in the kitchen and goes to bed.

The next morning he flies his son's American flag over at the local school.   He then wraps tape around the pull ropes and the pole and tells the janitor to leave the flag up there.  The flag flies over the school, but it flies upside down. 


Good movie.  It is a bit of a mystery because former Sgt. Hank Deerfield's son goes missing.  Hank devotes himself to finding his son and then finding out how he died.  Along the way we learn a bit about Iraq and the Iraq War as well as PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).  The movie kept both my wife's and my interest throughout.  I thought it was a little long, my wife didn't.  You've got to feel a bit sorry for a man like Hank Deerfield.  Like a lot of men, his feelings are walled off.  This has bad results, because the man doesn't even asks his son what happened when his son told him something bad happened.  I think it made his son feel he was on his own.  It would do not good to seek help from his emotionally-blocked father.   Hank also does not comfort his wife on the loss of her second son to the military and war.  At the end Hank realizes his guilt in all this.  This is shown in the American flag being flown upside-down.  Tommy Lee Jones as Hank Deerfield and Charlize Theron as Detective Emily Sanders were very good in their roles. 


Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.



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