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In the Valley of Elah

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In the Valley of Elah
Theatrical release poster
Directed byPaul Haggis
Screenplay byPaul Haggis
Story by
Produced by
CinematographyRoger Deakins
Edited byJo Francis
Music byMark Isham
Distributed by
Release date
  • September 14, 2007 (2007-09-14) (United States)
Running time
121 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$23 million[1]
Box office$29.5 million[2]

In the Valley of Elah is a 2007 American crime drama film written and directed by Paul Haggis. The film stars Tommy Lee Jones, Charlize Theron, and Susan Sarandon. Its title refers to the Biblical valley where the battle between David and Goliath took place.

The film is based on actual events, although the characters' names and locations have been changed. The screenplay was inspired by journalist Mark Boal's "Death and Dishonor", an article about the murder case published in Playboy magazine in 2004.

It portrays a military father's search for his son and, after his body is found, subsequent hunt for his son's killers. The film explores themes including the Iraq War, abuse of prisoners, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).


On November 1, 2004, Hank Deerfield – a gravel trucker and retired military police sergeant living in Monroe, Tennessee with his wife Joan – is notified that his son Mike, a soldier recently returned from Iraq, has gone missing. Hank drives to Mike’s base in New Mexico to look for him; leaving home, he helps a school custodian raise the American flag correctly. At Fort Rudd, Hank meets his son’s squad, and secretly takes Mike’s cell phone from his belongings. Watching videos recovered from the phone, he attempts to report Mike’s disappearance to police detective Emily Sanders, after she finished talking to a woman whose dog has been murdered, regrettably unable to help out, and reaches out to a friend formerly at Army CID, without success.

Mike’s burned and dismembered body is discovered. Fort Rudd claims jurisdiction, believing that a pipe found under Mike’s mattress and the recent arrest of other soldiers for smuggling heroin indicate his murder was drug-related. Hank persuades Sanders to show him the crime scene, and realizes that a green car spotted at the scene was actually blue. Belittled by her male colleagues, Sanders convinces the local sheriff to pursue the investigation, and Mike’s squadmate SPC Gordon Bonner reaches out to Hank.

After viewing her son’s remains, Joan returns home and receives a package Mike mailed to himself, which Hank urges her not to open. Mike’s credit card history leads Sanders and Hank to a restaurant, where Hank deduces Mike ate with at least two other people shortly before his death. Sanders is given sworn statements from Mike’s squad by Army investigators, preventing her from interviewing them herself. She invites Hank over for dinner, and he tells her young son the story of the Biblical David’s battle with Goliath in the Valley of Elah.

Eve, a topless bartender Hank previously questioned, recognizes Mike’s squadmate CPL Steve Penning from a photograph, leading Hank to learn that Mike and Penning were kicked out of a strip club the night Mike was killed. Sanders interviews Penning, Bonner, and SPC Ennis Long, who admit to lying in their statements: after Mike got the four of them kicked out of the club, he and Bonner fought in the parking lot; Mike then paid for their food at the restaurant, and they visited a prostitute before leaving Mike, who was looking to buy drugs. Hank refuses to believe Mike’s fellow soldiers could be involved in his death.

Hank and the police determine that another member of Mike’s squad, PVT Robert Ortiz, is AWOL, with a history of drug smuggling and a blue car. Following the police as they raid Ortiz’s address, Hank subdues the fleeing Ortiz and beats him until detectives intervene. Ortiz is arrested, but Bonner is found hanged with Mike’s grandfather’s watch in his pocket. Sanders concludes that Bonner, who also owned a blue car, killed Mike. She learns that Angie, a soldier’s wife who came to her for help, has been murdered by her husband.

Hank has his son’s remains sent home, and Penning helps jump-start his truck, reminiscing about Mike. Sanders matches Penning's handwriting to the signature on Mike’s last credit card statement, and realizes Penning, Bonner, and Long killed Mike, then used his credit card at the restaurant. Penning has already come forward and received a plea deal, but at Sanders’ insistence, she and Hank hear his confession in person: he admits to stabbing Mike after a seemingly insignificant quarrel. Hank asks him about a video of Mike torturing a captive insurgent, and the emotionally distant Penning explains, “We all do stupid things”. He also states that anyone could have died in that quarrel or a similar one, and that Mike "was the smart one [and that] he could see", thereby implying Mike may have brought the aggression upon himself out of nihilistic despondency and the realization of the group's inability to readjust to civilian life.

Collecting Mike’s belongings, Hank apologizes to Ortiz, who has been honorably discharged. Haunted by his last conversation with his son, after Mike drove over an Iraqi child playing in the road, Hank thanks Sanders and returns home. He finds Joan opened Mike’s package, which contains a picture of his squad and a folded flag. Returning to the local school’s flagpole, Hank flies his son’s flag upside down.



Factual basis[edit]

Although the film story is fictional, with the names and locations changed, it is based on the facts of the murder case of Richard T. Davis of Baker Company, 1-15 IN. Davis was an Iraq War veteran who was murdered soon after his return home in 2003. Richard Davis's father, Lanny Davis, was a former military police officer. He mounted his own investigation into the crime, as did the character played by Jones in the film. Davis commented, "It's a strong movie and a good movie. And it's going to make a lot of people think."[3]

In 2004, freelance journalist Mark Boal wrote an article about Richard Davis's murder, entitled "Death and Dishonor," published in Playboy. This inspired Haggis, who adapted the account for his screenplay.[4][5]

Davis's story was told in a 2006 episode, "Duty, Death and Dishonor," of the CBS News program 48 Hours Mystery.[6]

A non-fiction book about the murder case, by author Cilla McCain, titled Murder in Baker Company: How Four American Soldiers Killed One Of Their Own was published in 2009 by Chicago Review Press.[7]

Screenplay and casting[edit]

Haggis initially approached Clint Eastwood to play the part of Hank Deerfield, which Haggis had written for him. Eastwood declined the opportunity because he was involved with other projects.[8]


The film premiered September 1, 2007, at the Venice Film Festival and was later shown at the Toronto International Film Festival. It opened in a somewhat limited release in the United States on September 14, 2007, eventually grossing $6.7 million domestically, making it a box office disappointment.[2][9] The film opened in the United Kingdom on January 25, 2008.[2]

Critical reception[edit]

As of March 20, 2022, review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reports a 74% approval rating based on 164 reviews, with an average score of 7.00/10. The site's consensus reads: "Though some of Paul Haggis's themes are heavy-handed, In the Valley of Elah is otherwise an engrossing murder mystery and antiwar statement, featuring a mesmerizing performance from Tommy Lee Jones".[10] On Metacritic, the film has an average score of 65 out of 100, based on 37 reviews, indicating "generally favorable reviews".[11]

Time magazine's Richard Corliss named the film one of the Top 10 Movies of 2007, ranking it at #8. In his review, Corliss praised the film as an improvement on Paul Haggis's Oscar-winning Crash, calling it "strong in the sleuthing, sobering in its political conclusions." Corliss singled out Tommy Lee Jones's performance, saying his "drained humanity anchors this excellent drama."[12] Time critic Richard Schickel also ranked the film #8 on his own Top 10 list, saying that the film "is a spare, taciturn, devastating account of what happens to the souls of soldiers forced to fight wars for which not even phony or temporary justifications are offered them."[13]

The film was criticized by some as having a heavy-handed approach. Stephen Hunter of The Washington Post wrote, "Haggis also appears to have no respect for his audience. At its crudest, the film settles for agitprop."[14] Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times said that "the characters in this sombre film have the glum look of individuals delivering a Very Important Message to the world. And though this film in fact does have something crucial to convey, this is not the way to go about it."[15] Conversely, Stephanie Zacharek of Salon was critical of the film for not going far enough, saying that it "chickens out."[16]

Awards and nominations[edit]

Haggis won an award given by the SIGNIS at the 2007 Venice Film Festival,[17] where the film was in contention for the Golden Lion. Tommy Lee Jones was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor.[18] The film also made the National Board of Review's list of Top Ten Independent Films of the year.[19]


  1. ^ "In the Valley of Elah". bombreport.com. Retrieved January 18, 2023.
  2. ^ a b c "In the Valley of Elah". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved January 18, 2023.
  3. ^ Breznican, Anthony (September 11, 2007). "Tommy Lee Jones ready for any 'Elah' fallout". USA Today. Retrieved March 9, 2008.
  4. ^ Boal, Mark (May 2004). "Death and Dishonor". Playboy. Archived from the original on October 13, 2007. Retrieved March 9, 2008.
  5. ^ Slotek, Jim (September 15, 2007). "Haggis hits home with Elah". Winnipeg Sun. Archived from the original on July 28, 2020. Retrieved March 9, 2008.
  6. ^ Moriarty, Erin (May 17, 2006). "Duty, Death, Dishonor". 48 Hours. CBS News. Archived from the original on January 16, 2008. Retrieved March 9, 2008.
  7. ^ "Collateral damage: The murder of Richard Davis". The Belfast Telegraph. January 8, 2008. Archived from the original on January 20, 2008. Retrieved March 9, 2008.
  8. ^ "In the Valley of Elah". Entertainment Weekly. August 10, 2007. Retrieved August 13, 2022.
  9. ^ Johnson, Ted (October 23, 2007). "War films lose box office battle". POLITICO. Retrieved January 18, 2023.
  10. ^ "In the Valley of Elah". Rotten Tomatoes. Fandango Media. Retrieved November 24, 2021.
  11. ^ "In the Valley of Elah (2007)". Metacritic. CBS Interactive. Retrieved July 17, 2019.
  12. ^ Corliss, Richard (December 9, 2007). "Top 10 Movies". Time. Archived from the original on December 12, 2007. Retrieved March 9, 2008.
  13. ^ Schickel, Richard (December 9, 2007). "Top 10 Movies". Time. Archived from the original on December 12, 2007. Retrieved March 9, 2008.
  14. ^ Hunter, Stephen (September 14, 2007). "'Valley of Elah' Spins An All-Too-Timeless Tale". The Washington Post. Retrieved March 9, 2008.
  15. ^ Turan, Kenneth (September 14, 2007). "'In the Valley of Elah'". Los Angeles Times. Archived from the original on January 10, 2009. Retrieved March 9, 2008.
  16. ^ Zacharek, Stephanie (September 14, 2007). "'In the Valley of Elah'". Salon. Retrieved March 9, 2008.
  17. ^ "Paul Haggis Wins 2007 SIGNIS Award in Venice". SIGNIS. August 9, 2007. Retrieved January 18, 2023.
  18. ^ "2008 | Oscars.org | Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences". www.oscars.org. Retrieved January 18, 2023.
  19. ^ "2007 Archives". National Board of Review. Retrieved January 19, 2023.

External links[edit]