Star-studded cast keeps things real under director Paul Haggis
In the Valley of Elah comes on as a downbeat sort of detective story, with an undercurrent of aching urgency to it. That urgency emerges from the story’s concern with casualties of the war in Iraq, and the dour, sidelong approach reflects the gravity of those concerns while also permitting a mixture of suspense and smoldering moral complexity.
But the real center of things in this case 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/director Paul Haggis (Million Dollar Baby, Crash) 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. As played by Jones (with, presumably, Haggis’ directorial aid), Deerfield is a man already burdened with tragic knowledge, and so his terse, stoical way of defending traditional warrior virtues is fraught with silences and tacit foreboding—thereby bespeaking a deeply haunted awareness of the ways in which soldierly ideals are undercut by human frailty and the terrible potentials of war.
Haggis occasionally lapses into preachy symbolism, but the bulk of his screenplay is distinguished by a willingness to present Deerfield’s story as an opportunity to discover, and reflect upon, the characters’ strengths and weaknesses (in Crash, by contrast, there was a tendency toward emotional bludgeoning on such matters). And the deflection of movie-star personae—Jones and Theron in particular, but with a solid supporting cast (Susan Sarandon, Jason Patric, etc.) as well—consistently enhances the film’s no-nonsense realism.
Sarandon, who plays Deerfield’s wife and the grieving mother of two soldier sons, gets somewhat marginalized here, but that’s part of a socio-cultural theme that also gets reflected in different ways through the Theron character. And Deerfield’s grimly deadpan encounters with a topless-bar waitress (the sardonically perky Frances Fisher) further complicate that pattern.
Wes Chatham, Josh Brolin and Victor Wolf make variously provocative impressions in key secondary roles. The title refers to the story of David and Goliath, a parable and tale that Deerfield recounts and that comes back to haunt him and, therefore, the movie as a whole.