It's been suggested that there are upwards of 15 movies either in production or slated for release this fall that deal with the vagaries of America's presence in Iraq. These can be ground level documentaries or creative visualizations, and they can certainly straddle the moral line as they each have something very specific to say about our current occupation there. One of these, Paul Haggis' "In the Valley Of Elah" tracks the implications of war on the home front with staunch restraint and a perfect attention to characterization.
Starring Tommy Lee Jones as Hank Deerfield (the epitome of an American sounding name), "In the Valley of Elah" is essentially a police procedural draped against a military backdrop. After returning from a tour in Iraq, Hank's son goes AWOL. He travels up to the small town close to the military base and is met with indifference by the local police as well as tight-lipness by the military. When a body turns up, mutilated and set on fire in the desert, it turns out to be the body of his son. But finding justice feels like the last thing anyone wants. There are battles over jurisdiction, seemingly stemming from the fact that the government can then cover-up any black marks and the local police won't suffer another unsolved homicide. Eventually, due to Hank's persistence, he wins the trust and affection of female detective Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron). Spurred on by her own lack of trust by her largely male staff (that includes wonderful supporting turns by Josh Brolin and Brent Briscoe), Theron portrays Sanders as a wholly believable presence, dressing away her good looks and withering seamlessly into a performance that could have felt pedestrian. Due to his background in the military CID, Hank and Sanders chip away at all sides of the puzzle, eventually realizing some ugly truths in the process.
It's easy to dismiss writer/director Haggis. While I greatly appreciated his script to Clint Eastwood's Oscar winning "Million Dollar Baby", his concurrent Best Picture winner, 2005's "Crash" was a cliched disaster that felt strained and manipulative. With "In the Valley of Elah", Haggis' script could've easily veered into the same territory, but it avoids any of those previous pitfalls and rings immediately true. The acting and delivery of Haggis script is natural and real. Part of this goes to the outstanding cast who resist the basic urge to grandstand, but it's also reflected in Haggis' gentle direction and traditional framing. There are certain scenes that are held for the just the right amount of time (such as a walk down a hospital corridor and several phone conversations between Tommy Lee Jones and wife Susan Sarandon). Jones and Theron (as well as the already mentioned Brolin and Briscoe, but also Jason Patric and James Franco) bounce off each other nicely and Haggis also realizes the importance of reaction shots. Again, everything is understated, punctuating the moral motivations of the film's characters by never allowing dramatics to overtake the progressive flow.
I saw this film after seeing Peter Berg's "The Kingdom" and while that film is certainly more jingoistic, it falls way short of producing honest sentiments about our place in the international arena. Different purposes, granted, but its hard to take a film like that seriously after witnessing the potent structure of "In the Valley of Elah". There are some hard truths put under the microscope here, but "In the Valley of Elah" is not a sternly pro or anti-war picture. It places its ambiguous emotions at the center of a very confusing time in our world's history and presents us with an individual investigation that calls into question not only our actions around the world, but our inability to deal with emotional stability here at home. There's a wonderful subplot that pops up in the beginning of the film that results in disastrous ways towards the end. It seemingly has very little to do with the dead-body plot, but it speaks greatly to the messiness and unpredictability of human life. In small, nuanced ways, Haggis has gotten at much greater truths in fifteen minutes of "In the Valley of Elah" then the entire running time of "Crash".
This review and other theatrical releases can be read at Talking Moviezzz.