In the Valley of Elah

Rated 4.0

The center of things here is Hank Deerfield (Tommie Lee Jones), a Vietnam vet who launches his own unofficial investigation when his son Mike mysteriously disappears just after returning from duty in Iraq. That seat-of-the-pants investigation zig-zags through the military bureaucracy and various police jurisdictions, including that of a beleaguered homicide detective (Charlize Theron) whom he both badgers and assists. Digital photos and some erratic video images from a recovered cell phone bring glimpses of the son’s Iraq experiences into view along the way, and the missing-person case morphs into a murder mystery and the exposure of assorted cover-ups. The gradually emerging plot twists make for a mixture of crime story and social commentary, but Valley is at its best when it’s primarily an acerbic character study, with the topical issues embedded in the details of people’s individual lives. And the fierce calm and eerie dignity of Jones’ performance make it one of the high points of the movie year. Screenwriter Paul Haggis (Million Dollar Baby, Crash), also making his directorial debut here, pretty plainly conceives of Deerfield as an old-school warrior type whose search for his soldier son leads into the tragically fragmented realities of soldiering in the 21st century. Feather River Cinemas and Tinseltown. Rated R