Home > Reviews > IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH – Mark Isham


September 14, 2007 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Paul Haggis has grown increasingly bold as a filmmaker, but somehow less controversial with critics. The Haggis screenplay for “Million Dollar Baby” was terrific, and he collaborated with director Clint Eastwood to make the best film of 2004. In 2005, Haggis made another big impression with “Crash”, which certainly did some emotional button-pushing but was nonetheless a superb film. After the heavy-handed symbolism of the Haggis screenplay for “The Last Kiss” comes the even more heavy-handed “In the Valley of Elah”, which Haggis wrote and directed. The film benefits hugely from a superb Tommy Lee Jones performance before slipping into almost mind-bogglingly shameless emotional manipulation in the final act. Haggis was never a subtle artist, but I feel that he’s simply gone too far lately, and needs to restrain himself a little bit.

Thank goodness Haggis has tapped Mark Isham as his composer of choice. Isham is a wonderfully subtle composer, often writing intimate and understated musical efforts with an emphasis on character. His work on Haggis’ “Crash” provided a surprisingly impressive electronic effort, and elements of that score bleed into “In the Valley of Elah”. However, Isham was given the budget for a small orchestra this time around, and melds his trademark electronic sounds with gentle string writing. Isham has had an extremely busy year, this is one of seven scores he’s written for 2007 films (not counting the many episodes of the TV series “The Black Donnellys” Isham has scored).

With the exception of the Remote Control-like score for “Next”, all of Isham’s 2007 scores have been quiet and understated efforts. “Gracie”, “Lions for Lambs”, “Reservation Road”, “The Mist”, “Freedom Writers”, and this score are all basically in the same sonic world… a world where emotions are not handled with sweeping statements of thematic grandeur, but rather with intimate suggestions of introverted feelings. “In the Valley of Elah” is arguably the most somber and gentle score of the entire bunch, with “Reservation Road” serving as the closest competition. This is a score that needs to be heard in it’s entirety to be fully appreciated, it’s a slow-moving emotional journey. It’s not a score that you can easily grab four cues from to put on a highlight CD, there are few moments that really grab you on their own. In the case of this score, it’s the difference between having a few random patches and a fully-formed quilt.

However, I’ll take the time to point out moments of particular poignancy within that quilt. The score opens on a nice note with the keyboard-heavy “A Journey Begins”. It sounds sad, but wait until you realize that it’s the happiest moment in the score. The wrenching string writing during “A Family’s Grief” is excellent, as is the emotional buildup in “Viewing”, which allows a moderately high volume level to sneak in. It seems intensely emotional in a fragile musical world like this. Special mention should be made of “Bobby Ortiz”, the only cue to really break tone with the rest of the score. It’s an action piece with orchestra and electronics, taking some of the score’s somber ideas, speeding them up and adding percussion. The vaguely patriotic synth ideas Isham brings to “Upside Down” add an appropriately ironic feeling to the album’s close, allowing everything to melt away in a kind of bitter warmth. While this is hardly a very entertaining album of music, it’s difficult not to have a great deal of respect for the craftsmanship Isham displays here. Recommended for patient listeners.

Rating: ***½

Track Listing:

  • A Journey Begins (2:18)
  • The Morgue 5 (2:15)
  • Body Parts (4:40)
  • The Morgue 22 (2:15)
  • Killing Field (1:34)
  • Photos (1:10)
  • A Family’s Grief (3:10)
  • Emily Provokes (2:53)
  • Viewing (3:00)
  • You’re a Good Father (1:26)
  • Bobby Ortiz (3:08)
  • Bonner’s Dead (2:33)
  • A Murder (4:03)
  • Torture (1:54)
  • New Evidence (1:48)
  • Apology (1:46)
  • We Killed a Dog (3:02)
  • Upside Down (3:21)

Running Time: 46 minutes 08 seconds

Varese Sarabande VSD-6853 (2007)

Music composed by Mark Isham. Conducted by James Shearman. Orchestrations by Conrad Pope. Recorded and mixed by Shawn Murphy. Edited by Jennifer Nash. Album produced by Mark Isham.

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