In the Valley of Elah (Warner Bros.), written and directed by Paul Haggis, wants to be the Deer Hunter or Coming Home of the Iraq war, even if it veers at times into the tawdry territory of The General's Daughter. Because of two superb central performances from Tommy Lee Jones and Charlize Theron—and because Haggis' heavy-handed message about the war happens to be true—the film is vividly painful to watch. At times, it's a police procedural, a lurid thriller, and a passionate anti-war manifesto. Needless to say, that's a tough combination to fit together.
Jones plays Hank Deerfield (the very name is overdetermined in its quintessential American manliness), a retired MP whose son Mike (Jonathan Tucker) goes AWOL from a military base in New Mexico after a tour of duty in Iraq. Sensing that something is amiss, Hank drives from his home in Tennessee to the base, leaving behind his stoic but deeply distraught wife, Joan (Susan Sarandon). Within days of Hank's arrival, Mike's burned and dismembered body is found in a field near the base. Said field is located on the border between public and military property, leading to a jurisdictional battle between the Army investigators and the local police. Not that each side wants the case for its own—neither side really gives a damn, at least until one civilian detective, Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron), hooks up with Hank for some informal investigation on the side.
It figures that the truculent Hank is a better investigator than either the MPs or the locals. A lot of things figure in this movie, including the path of false clues and red herrings Hank must trudge on his way to the truth. I've seen episodes of CSI that telegraphed their twists with more subtlety. Essentially, Haggis is stalling, vamping with the crime plot so he can investigate the emotional resonances of the surrounding drama. But that's not always a bad thing. Though his story arcs tend to smell of the Syd Field screenwriting manual, Haggis can write the hell out of individual scenes. The partnership between Emily and Hank—two tough, headstrong loners who bury their feelings deep—is particularly well drawn. And Hank's interactions with Mike's buddy Bonner (played by Jake McLaughlin, a real-life Iraq vet and first-time actor) are marvels of skittish understatement.
Subplots abound. Theron's Emily, a single mother, is sexually harassed by the male cops on her squad; Sarandon's Joan, phoning Hank's motel for updates on the case, is emotionally shut out by her husband. Soon, the murder mystery itself starts to feel extraneous. I found myself dreading each fresh round of forensic clues, each schlep to the crime scene. Who done what to whom on the night of the murder is ultimately besides the point here. What we care about is Hank and his slow, unutterably sad realization that his youngest son (the oldest, we learn, died in training maneuvers some 10 years back) may not have been the war hero he imagined. Indeed, war itself is no longer what Hank imagines—and this is a Vietnam vet we're talking about. The scrambled bits of Iraq footage he downloads from his son's cell phone hint at a Dante-esque zone of horror, without ever demonizing the soldiers themselves. Haggis' way-left politics are fully in evidence, but so is his respect for American troops. It's hard to imagine viewers of any political stripe objecting to his sympathetic portrait of the victims of post-traumatic stress disorder.
The last few minutes—in which a completely out-of-character gesture on Hank's part, a pure concession to political symbolism, is capped by a sappy song over the final credits—squander some of the goodwill earned by this thoughtful and earnest, if occasionally plodding, film. But what's more moving than any Annie Lennox ballad is the knowledge that In the Valley of Elah was inspired by a real murder that took place four years ago at the Fort Benning base in Georgia. This is no doubt the first of many movies that will struggle to tell the stories of a war that's far from over, and even if the tale is imperfectly told, it commands our attention.