Paul Haggis' directorial follow-up to 2005's Oscar-winning "Crash
," "In the Valley of Elah" is slightly smaller in scale and more restrained in its outward emotions. It is, however, every bit as loud about the themes it covers and the points it needs to make. A penetrating, lacerating, angry-as-hell condemnation against the incalculably devastating cost of war as it pertains to both those fighting in it and those consequently affected by it back home, the film has the desire and passion to move, rile up and provoke. Going above and beyond the call of duty is a never-better Tommy Lee Jones (2005's "Man of the House
"), understated yet devastating as a former MP forced to reevaluate his lifelong gung-ho attitudes about the military and the importance of "serving our country."
When word comes that son Mike (Jonathan Tucker) has returned from his tour in Iraq but has gone missing, Tennessee-based Vietnam vet Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones) wastes no time in traveling to New Mexico's Fort Rudd, where Mike was stationed stateside, to jumpstart an investigation. Unraveling Mike's whereabouts suddenly becomes a search for answers about his murder when the remains of his body, charred and dismembered, are found alongside a dusty road on the edge of the base. Det. Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron), an underappreciated desk jockey quietly fighting a battle of her own with her sexist male colleagues, is at first reluctant to help Hank out before agreeing to take on the case. As Mike's comrades are interviewed and unsavory revelations are uncovered about his extracurricular activities, fresh avenues lead to dead ends and Hank suspects that the other men stationed with his late son are hiding the truth about what they know. In the meantime, he gets a first-row seat into the shattering effects that the war has had on those who've fought in it.
"In the Valley of Elah," which gets its name from the biblical story of David and Goliaththe full intentions of the title aren't fully revealed until the sobering final scenesis a slow-burn, meticulously executed character drama. Since the film is portrayed in the fashion of an investigative procedural and whodunit, there is a frame of time in which the viewer starts questioning where the plot threads are leading and when the bigger picture will rear its head. This is a compliment rather than a hindrance because too many pictures are released where one can correctly predict the ending in the first scene. Here is a film that takes its time to show all of the cards being played, and the rewards of figuring them out alongside the characters are plentiful. It is a possibility that writer-director Paul Haggis' pacing may be too contemplative and even glacial for mainstream audiences, but it would be a shame for viewers to not have the patience to keep with it. Though slow, "In the Valley of Elah" is never tedious, and the satisfaction that arrives with the tough conclusion is immense.
If Tommy Lee Jones can win an Oscar for his undemanding role in 1993's "The Fugitive," then he most definitely should have no trouble earning a nomination for his work here. As Hank Deerfield, Jones' tired, sad eyes are the windows into the soul of a character who has lived his life teaching himself how to shield his human vulnerability from the view of the world. There are few scenes where Jones isn't on the screen, and he commands attention and ultimately sympathy in a performance of subdued brilliance. Take, for example, the scene where an officer shows up at Hank's motel room. Hank excuses himself to go into the bathroom and tend to a cut he received earlier in the morning from shaving. He knows what the reason for the visit is, but is neither ready nor preparedthen again, is a parent ever?for the inevitable news he is about to hear in regards to his son. The tone that Jones strikes here and throughout is pitch-perfect, never overstating things or going for a cheap emotion that he can achieve more truthfully through subtlety.
As the hard-working, by-the-book Det. Emily Sanders, Charlize Theron (2005's "North Country
") once again downplays her movie-star looks in a bid for legitimate respect. Theron doesn't need to seek such a thing out anymore; she has long since proven that her gift as an actor supersedes her natural beauty. In the small but critical role of Hank's grieving wife Joan, Susan Sarandon (2007's "Mr. Woodcock
") is unflinchingly raw and real. When she is given the tough news over the phone that her second and last remaining child has diedan older son was killed serving in the military ten years priorher rash accusations toward a husband who pushed his sons into the Army lead to a heartbreaking line: "Both of my boys, Hankcouldn't you have left me one?" Sarandon's screen time is fleeting (less than fifteen minutes in total), but the effectiveness of her character and the strength of her presence is felt even when she is out of sight.
With the Iraq War on many people's minds in today's times, the amount of cinematic works on the subject are quickly rising. Thus far, none have really stood out above the rest. For example, "The Kingdom," due to be released two weeks from the time of this writing, is pat and obvious in the messages it advertises, not to mention manipulative. "In the Valley of Elah" changes all that, daring to cast a harsh but necessary light on a world that sacrifices honorable, innocent men and women in the name of avoidable, possibly unsolvable conflicts and then sweeps under the rug the deep-seated ramifications that war has on the surviving veterans. The film's final image of a flagthe details of which will not be given awayisn't totally unanticipated but it is perfectly and powerfully representative of today's troubled times of war without so much as a word spoken.