Film Music Institute > Film Music Magazine (Current) > CD Reviews > CD REVIEW: IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH

Composer: Mark Isham
Label: Varese Sarabande
Suggested Retail Prices: $ 16.98
Grade: B

When it comes to examining the wreckage of modern society, few people expose our country’s mental scrapheap with the perceptiveness of director-writer Paul Haggis and his favored composer Mark Isham. The latter’s beautifully sad score doubtlessly was a big part of Haggis’ Oscar-winning success with CRASH, as Isham’s hypnotic tones became the sound of our racial disconnect. Now with their even more elegiac follow-up IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH, Haggis and Isham bring social matters to an unbearable boil. Except here, the colors are muted to the simplest musical and story tones. And while one could hope for the kind of agitprop kick in the ass that would make ELAH more interesting as a film, Isham more than proves that he can remain compelling when restricted to something resembling emotional minimalism.

One can imagine how a filmmaker like Tony Scott would have turned ELAH’s tale of an ex-military policeman’s quest to find his soldier son’s killer into a fiesta of car wrecks and explosions- not to mention a score of throbbing samples and raging strings. But for better or worse, that’s not how Haggis wants things to be seen or heard in ELAH. This is a somewhat mopey, slow-moving valley that remains undeniably powerful- even if it’s moral lesson isn’t as effective as CRASH’s. And it must be a heck of a challenge for any composer when he’s given a film that almost screams for truly emotional music. Except here, Isham can’t raise things above a silent scream of war-damaged agony. Yet as he’s more than shown in subtly dramatic scores like MRS. SOFFEL, BILLY BATHGATE and MOONLIGHT MILE, Isham can convey more emotion in a simple string or sample than most composers could accomplish with a 100-piece orchestra or bank of synthesizers. And while not much really happens in ELAH’s soundtrack, it remains a haunting, and moving listen.

Hushed strings and subtly percolating samples can be found through Isham’s softly melodic VALLEY. This is film that’s comprised of a lot of shots of characters furrowing their brows, pondering the terrible mental carnage of returning Iraqi vets. And Isham’s still, tragic music is evocative of the horrors that we don’t get to see, its dense, beautifully sad vibe recalling the classical tone poems of Henryk Gorecki, Krzystof Penderecki and Samuel Barber – whose long, sad rhythms have been co-opted by Hollywood for the tragic likes of FEARLESS and PLATOON. And that approach here is right in tune with the message that Haggis is hammering in with ELAH- though Isham achieves it with a bit more subtlety.

That isn’t to say that ELAH is all dramatic still waters, as cues like “Bobby Oritz” drive its murder investigation forward with powerful, dramatic momentum. And Isham’s music also builds with relentless intensity for the big murder reveal of “We Killed a Dog.” Other cues use the kind of mesmerizing, hollowed-out sounds that have made Isham a composer who can walk in experimental waters without being too obvious about it. But if ELAH’s music does remain understandably grim for most of the soundtrack’s running time, Isham’s score isn’t any the less effective for it. For the goal of all film music, if it’s doing its job, is to make us feel something. And while some might wish that IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH would have been a bit more combative in its visual and musical approaches, the end result is still one of heart-wrenching compassion, especially in terms of Isham’s score. Sure there’s no big battle music. But that doesn’t mean we don’t hear the true, mental carnage that the Iraq war has wrought on the American soul. And it’s an ongoing tragedy that Isham’s music is right in tune with.

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