With Paul Haggis‘ “In the Valley of Elah,” the fall season of heavy-hitting Oscar contenders officially begins.
Mr. Haggis wrote two of the last three best-picture winners (“Million Dollar Baby” and “Crash”) and directed one (“Crash”). His new film, inspired by a true story, stars three Oscar winners. And it takes on a big and timely topic, the war in Iraq.
With the stars so aligned, you could hardly go wrong, and for the first two-thirds, this film goes very well indeed. However, Mr. Haggis seems so intent on restraining his own antiwar views to make a nonpartisan, emotional rather than polemical film that his work falls apart in the last act.
Tommy Lee Jones is Hank Deerfield, a retired Army sergeant who hauls gravel for a living. His quiet, well-ordered life is disturbed when a call from Fort Rudd informs him that his son is about to be reported AWOL; Mike (Jonathan Tucker) disappeared as soon as his platoon returned from a tour of duty in Iraq.
Hank gets into his truck to drive down to New Mexico almost immediately, leaving his wife, Joan (Susan Sarandon) behind: If, as they suspect, their boy’s off celebrating, he surely won’t want his mom to be the one to find him.
In fact, it’s the police who finally do: The charred remains of the soldier are discovered by a crew including Detective Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron). The site is on the border between the town and the base, and it’s unclear under whose jurisdiction the murder falls. The cops are only too happy to let the Military Police take a homicide off their hands, but Emily fights for the case, driven by Hank’s pleas, the desire to prove herself in a misogynistic department and her guilt over another military case that ended badly.
At the heart of “In the Valley of Elah” are two mysteries, but the important one isn’t the obvious one. The investigation is relatively routine, with the older man showing the younger woman the witnesses she has forgotten to question, the clues she has been too careless to see. Yet it’s utterly compelling because of Mr. Jones’ intensity and, even more important, the idea that there’s a mystery here much bigger than one man.
Hank surreptitiously takes his son’s cell phone from the barracks and gets a data miner to send him videos that remain on the heat-damaged mobile. It’s clear that very bad things happened in Iraq, and what Hank sees will test the veteran’s faith in both his families, biological and military.
Mr. Jones is at his minimalist best here. The film is his, with the camera often focusing on his hard, taut face as he comes to grips with the same knowledge the entire country is still struggling to understand.
Mr. Haggis has assembled a fine supporting cast. Jake McLaughlin, playing one of Mike’s fellow troops, makes a promising debut here, perhaps because he was awarded the Army Commendation Medal for his own service in Iraq.
The title refers to the scene of the biblical battle between David and Goliath. Saviors are harder to come by these days. “They shouldn’t send heroes to places like Iraq,” one of the troops declares — and Mr. Haggis subtly suggests that’s because this war is unlike other wars in the effect it’s having on our troops.
“In the Valley of Elah” adds a new layer to the debate over the atrocities committed by American soldiers in Iraq and is certain to cause some fuss. Mr. Haggis hasn’t made as well-structured a film as “Crash,” but he has made one that’s almost as thought-provoking.
“That’s how you fight monsters,” Hank tells Emily’s young son. “You lure them in, look them in the eye, then smack them down.”
But what if those monsters are hiding within us all?
TITLE: “In the Valley of Elah”
RATING: R (Violent and disturbing content, language and some sexuality/nudity)
CREDITS: Written and directed by Paul Haggis from a story by Mark Boal and Paul Haggis
RUNNING TIME: 121 minutes
WEB SITE: www.inthevalleyofelah.com
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS