The title is a bit of a head-scratcher but the message is unmistakable. Writer-director Paul Haggis couldn’t have made it more clear if he’d blared it from a bullhorn — and in the film’s final image, he practically does.
With “In the Valley of Elah,” his follow-up to the stirring, Academy Award-winning “Crash,” Haggis gives us an indictment of the Iraq war and its effect on the returning troops and their families. A necessary and relevant topic, to be sure, but one that Haggis approaches with mixed results.
Fundamentally, “Elah” is a standard procedural, with Vietnam vet and former military policeman Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones) teaming up with Detective Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron) to uncover what happened to his son, Mike, a soldier who goes AWOL after coming back from Iraq and is later found savagely killed.
The performances are so strong, though, they elevate the film beyond its limitations. Jones perpetuates the stoic, surly persona he’s perfected, but there’s an undercurrent of aching sadness that makes him more accessible and human than ever before. And Theron, as a no-nonsense investigator who’s tired of being underestimated by her male colleagues, is every bit his equal.
Haggis also gets solid work out of some unexpected sources: Jake McLaughlin and Wes Chatham, young military veterans themselves making their film debut as members of Mike’s platoon. At the same time, he squanders Susan Sarandon as Hank’s distant wife and Frances Fisher as a topless bartender. (Yes, you read that right.)
But this is Jones’ show, and he makes you feel a father’s fear and loss in ways that are subtly heartbreaking, never melodramatic.
When Hank first gets word that Mike (Jonathan Tucker) is missing, he immediately leaves his quiet life in Tennessee, with barely a discussion about it with his wife, and drives to the New Mexico Army base where his son was stationed. Hank hauls gravel for a living these days but maintains the regimen and routine of a longtime military man: crisply made motel room bed, shoes shined and waiting for him on the side.
Mike’s friends have no clue where he might have gone, and while the Army’s Lt. Kirklander (Jason Patric) and Sgt. Carnelli (James Franco) say they want to help, they barely seem interested. Then Mike’s body turns up amid the brush of a field that happens to fall just inside military jurisdiction. A mess of strewn-about pieces and burned flesh, it’s a harrowing crime scene, one that stays with Theron’s local police detective, Emily, even after she’s no longer on the case.
Hank and Emily do some individual digging before he’s finally able to persuade her to help him. Of course he’s always right and is all too happy to point out the shoddy police work that’s already been done, but he pushes her to look harder at the evidence, and each makes the other a little better somehow.
The banter between Jones and Theron provides a welcome source of mild comic relief in the midst of such heavy subject matter. Adding to the mood is the beautifully stark camerawork from the longtime Coen brothers cinematographer, the great Roger Deakins, who makes us feel the loneliness of this man in this place.
A plot point involving Mike’s damaged cell phone, though, feels too contrived. Hank steals the phone from his son’s dresser on the base and has a tech guru (Rick Gonzalez) extricate the video files. Each one that pops up in Hank’s e-mail is more intense and violent than the last, the grainy, garbled images suggesting the boy he raised turned into a young man he barely knew. It’s too easy as a narrative device — besides, how did Mike have the time or the presence of mind to document everything he was doing on video when in the heat of battle?
Ultimately, we do get an answer to this murder mystery after several red herrings are paraded before us, but the questions still linger as to the lasting marks left on the young people who go off to war. Haggis can be so heavy-handed here, he makes you wish he’d left something open to the audience for interpretation and debate.
Oh, and about that title? It comes from the Old Testament, the site of the battle between David and Goliath. Haggis has said he views the troops as David in the equation, but Hank could be David, too, taking on the Goliath of American military bureaucracy that’s keeping him from the truth.