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In the Valley of Elah

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It could be said that the motion picture ‘In the Valley of Elah’ effectively relocates our minds out of the stereotype of soldiers as heroes, to war crime committers causing a huge impact on the contemporary American society, given that it reveals a shameful truth. Within its powerful plot, the character of Hank Deerfield, played by Tommy Lee Jones, Oscar winner for this dramatic and vital role, illustrates a father struggling to accept the death of two sons serving the American Armed Forces.

Deerfield’s dramatic journey throughout the film drives him to meet Detective Emily Sanders, successfully interpreted by Charlize Theron, an unappreciated yet resolute police officer whose career is being under distress because of irrespective male colleagues. The character of Hank Deerfield alongside of Emily Sanders partake in a discovery uncovering, in which provokes a new disturbing knowledge of unexpected military events. Whilst these events are revealed, throughout ‘In the Valley of Elah’ a strong and negative view of war and the military is presented by the director Paul Haggis.

In an era such as now, the director showed bravery in producing such an anti-war and anti-military film, which not only presented how war and the army affect the young vulnerable soldiers, but also how it can break apart the American society. Haggis’ film is vigorously effective in presenting this lasting anti-war posture through his authentic and truthful portrayal of the impact of the military on those living both within and outside the system. Moreover, the film in its beginning presents a very accurate view of what to expect from the character of Hank Deerfield.

It clearly introduces to its viewer Deerfield’s patriotism and what he stands for in his country. The film used a variety of devices to demonstrate Deerfield’s obsession for his country, such as his connection with the US flag and military photographs. It might be suggested that not only the fact that Deerfield’s patriotic manners are due to the impact the military has had on his character, but also that it is representative of the first stage of the director’s presentation of how negatively the military affects our lives.

This negative influence is further reflected by the presentation of Hank’s relationship with his sons. Hank’s attitude towards emotive situations related with his sons’ deaths are entirely the opposite of what it might be expected from an ordinary person. Throughout the film, it is also possible to see the pressure that Hank had on his son’s choice to serve in the armed forces. It might be said that it collides with the director’s point of view that the military can remove poignant links within families.

Furthermore, the military influence on Hank’s character is also produced on his relationship with his wife. The director’s point of view is deliberately displayed as Hank is always unemotive and distant, in such situations as in their son’s death where Hank would, by instinct, not cooperate with Joan’s misery; contributing to her growth downtrodden and unappreciated role in his life. Hank’s character shows himself as very obsessive and in need of keeping absolute control around him, which is associated to his patriotism.

That in the film, was remarkably symbolized in a scene where Hank interrupted his journey as he noticed a US flag being dragged on the floor by a Hispanic man and he would spare a minute to correct it. In contrast with his deeds related with his family, the manner he teaches the man how important it is to respect the flag shows in viewer’s eyes that his love for the country is more consistent than for his family. This effectively contributes to the audience’s low level of sympathy for the character of Hank, since at this point he could roughly be described as an anti-hero.

The impact of Hank’s character as unemotive does not just fall in the audience’s eyes, but also in the eyes of the character of Emily Sanders, a woman who until this point has been presented sympathetically to the audience, mainly due to the mode she is unfairly approached by her male colleagues at work. They ignore her competence since she is a woman, and also tend to believe that the reason she was placed in her position was due to sexual nepotism. To complement her liability, she is a single mother, who through affectionate scenes on the film displayed her love and devotion for her son David.

At some point at the work day, where she was always referred absurd and unimportant occurrences, she was found with Hank’s missing son’s case. Exactly at this moment, the character of Emily is viewed at a different perspective from the audience since she refused to help the afflicted man. It is noticeable the change over the feelings for both characters of Hank and Emily, where the impassive became the vulnerable, and vice versa. The viewer is guided to further his sympathy for the character of Hank while Hank analyses Michael’s movements, which leads Hank to the barracks his son inhabited.

In a place where the setting is very clinical and uniform, the lack of freedom of the characters of the men residing there confronts once again with the effective presentation of how the American soldiers’ life is automatically changed after the processes within the army. This gives the viewer a hint of why Hank behaves in certain ways, and also reminds us of his nationalism, as when he is in the barracks and happens to face a random soldier’s room that keeps an Iraqi flag, making Hank extremely uncomfortable.

Yet in the barracks, Hank discovers his son’s kit bag, which used to belong to him. At this instance, there is a camera close up on Hank’s face, which surprisingly reveals a tender and sad emotion; the viewer realises that Hank actually cares and misses his son. Furthermore, Hank steals Mike’s phone, reflecting the presence of his previous military career. He also acquires his son’s Bible, illustrating the presence of biblical themes on the film.

The viewer is conducted to empathise, now, with the character of Hank as he seems be abandoned. The decision to make Hank’s appearance appealing to the viewer is chosen by the director so that we feel compassionate for him, and start taking his side; resulting effectively in the audience recreating a new idea of how military affects us, in the same way it will further in Hank. Moreover, the presentation of the town where the barracks is located further supports the director’s point of view, translucent to the impact the army causes.

Based on the presence of fast foods restaurants, bars and strip clubs the viewer is presented to the idea that everything around the town is unpleasant which collides with the idea that the military station placed there is contributing to the demoralized situation. One of the director’s strongest points of view was upon the women, which in their socio-economic context could be considerate as working class. The socio-economic class division illustrated on the film reveals the contemporary situation that has been hidden for the past years.

The presentation of the treatment of women by the young soldiers seems very disrespectful, which is correspondent to the effects of discrimination on Emily, as the viewer is able to see that she is clearly able to do her job. Another factor concerning the town is the barracks’ surroundings, a waste land. The waste land is interpreted thorough the director as a metaphorical representation of the military’s place in the society. The director’s purpose in the presentation of the expanse of neglected space and nothingness could be symbolised as the desolation present in the military’s life.

Furthermore, it might be said that it represents the reflection of the US contemporary society deteriorating and becoming corrupted, as it was in the past barely a microcosm and now it has become poorer in opportunities. The military, after contacting Hank to inform his son was found dead, neglects the truth that they are supposedly aware of and presents to Hank a modified easy version of the reason related to his son’s death, suggesting that Michael was a drug dealer. Moreover, we see that Michael was actually involved with drugs, nevertheless not the way he was accused.

Furthermore, Emily decides to help Hank. It might be suggested that it happens since Emily was in the need to prove herself, other than just help Hank. Additionally, a case of domestic abuse committed by a soldier, which was previously in Emily’s hand and could have been evaded, has shocked and forced her to realise that she was allowing the mistreatment at her work affect her capability. It might be suggested that the director tried to link the discrimination with Hank’s relationship with his wife, Joan.

However, Hank never shows a positive support towards his wife lost, it could be said that his way of thinking about the military in his son’s life is gradually changing at this point, as he realises the pressure he used to put on his sons’ choices was not well succeeded, and even suicidal. The way the director presents the choice of Mike becoming a soldier illustrates the change of his character, where before he would have been considered an honest, righteous man and now portraying opposite terms.

Furthermore, we see that the way Mike has developed into resulted evidences, such as videos and photographs where he was participating in mutilations, tortures and abuses; those that also were a reason for him and his colleagues’ laughter. Through the film, we were able to see this evidence at the same time as Hank could recover them from his son’s phone, which might be said that was to reinforce the message behind the film. Moreover, the viewer was presented with a biblical story, David and Goliath, as Hank was telling Emily’s son David.

The story is also used as a device through the director to make a connection between the wars in old times and as it is currently happening and its main agent the US government; also, connecting with the socio-economic situation around the military, as Hank tells the story and David grows curious about the subject, which could be said that applies the cycle where he would eventually without other opportunities join the army. Fighting against the US governmen, Hank and Emily uncover the real facts, where the actual murders of Hank’s son were Mike’s colleagues.

Instants before the confession, Gordan Bonner, the killer, had an almost poignant conversation with Hank. Even so, in the confession room Gordan showed coldness and indifference to his actions, as he told Joan. This cause a huge impact on the viewer, as the director proves effectiveness showing his point of view on the military with the lack of emotions seems to represent the effect the war and the military applies on the soldiers’ life.

Another important point of impact for the viewer, is when it is discovered that the state actually was aware of the true murderers of Mike, and that the state preferred to give a private sentence, so that there was no court involving the case in order that it was not publicised and the stereotype of the army and its members continued intact. Nevertheless, it made Hank realise that he had been idolising a fraud.

As a motif and a symbol for that, the director presented his point of view over a scene where Hank, took the US flag that used to belong to Mike in Iraq and ran it upside down, reflecting his disgust for the turmoil condition the US has become. In conclusion, I believe Haggis has effectively showed his point of view on the war and the military and its impact on the contemporary US society. Throughout the film, he led its viewer so that they were charismatically guided to support his point of view.

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