In the Valley of Elah, the first film Paul Haggis has written and directed since Crash, is exactly the sort of movie America needs right now — a lacerating, bone-deep inquiry into the war in Iraq, one that struggles to find meaning in the very chaos of that conflict. It’s no secret that those of us who have never been in a war have probably ingested much of what we ”know” of the experience of combat from the movies. In the Valley of Elah isn’t a combat film per se, but its dramatic power is rooted in the violent mystery of battle — in the awe and anxiety and, yes, the curiosity we feel when we imagine our soldiers in a place like Iraq and think, What is it that defines this war? This particular hell?
The film is actually a Stateside murder mystery, and it’s a beautifully executed one: tense, and meditative (at times a little too meditative), with most of the bogus genre conventions scraped away. I’m one of those people who couldn’t abide Crash, with its phony checkerboard structure and glib talky quality-network-drama racial dialectics, but Haggis, teaming up with the great emotional minimalist Tommy Lee Jones, has turned over an austere and authentic new leaf. He has found the terse poetry of the everyday.
Jones’ Hank Deerfield is a retired Army sergeant and Vietnam veteran who hauls gravel for a living. He’s sitting in his Tennessee home when he learns that his son, Mike (Jonathan Tucker), who is scheduled to be returning from a tour of duty in Iraq, has gone missing. With barely a word to his wife (Susan Sarandon), Hank drives to Fort Rudd in New Mexico, where he meets his son’s platoon buddies, all of whom have come home safely. None of them really want to answer his questions, and neither do the officers, but Hank soon learns the bitter truth, when the charred pieces of his son’s body are found by a desert road near the base.
The Army investigators want the incident swept under the rug, and the local cops — there’s a question, based on where the murder took place, of which party has jurisdiction — are just apathetic. Except, that is, for Det. Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron), a sympathetic desk jockey Hank cajoles into helping him pursue the case. Hank manages to swipe his son’s camera phone from his quarters and bring it to a local street hacker, who decodes the files and sends them along, one by one. As Hank watches the jerky, staticky replays of Mike’s missions in Iraq, the videos are like something out of Blow-Up — we scan every last inch of those digital ”bricks” to learn the truth of what went on, and how, if at all, it might explain his murder. Hank’s amateur sleuthing, driven by a father’s sorrow and rage, has an arresting low-key gravitas.
In the Valley of Elah is based on the case of Specialist Richard R. Davis, who, after returning from Iraq, was found dead of multiple stab wounds four summers ago. In the film, all the clues that Hank uncovers — a midnight meal at the local chicken joint, the possible involvement of drugs — carry the fascinating banal sting of true crime. The film was shot by the great cinematographer Roger Deakins, and he gives it a high-bureaucratic ’70s classicism — the grip of stately fluorescence. The power of In the Valley of Elah is that Hank, in trying to learn how Mike was killed, is really delving, step by step, into the reality of the Iraq battle zone he came from. The roadside bombs, in their relentless anonymity; the orders to regard every civilian, even children, as a potential threat: How, exactly, does all of this shatter the nerves, and maybe shred the souls, of the men who are there? That’s what drives the movie — the slow, accumulating revelation of how the war in Iraq, in its unique physical and moral circumstances (which can’t be divided), has molded the soldiers fighting it.
Tommy Lee Jones, even when he was a young actor, always had a tense face, with its creased forehead and wounded, accusatory eyes. The creases are deeper now, and so, in this role, are the wounds, but Jones, in a powerful performance, somehow holds every emotion in and shows it to you anyway. Hank’s tightly etched control — the demeanor of a lifelong military man — serves the movie’s ideological purpose: It puts us on the side of a patriot who is not in any way questioning ”the troops” — who, in fact, wouldn’t have it in him to do so. He does ask this, though: What is what we’re doing in Iraq doing to us? The title refers to the setting of the David and Goliath story, with America, in Haggis’ metaphorical scheme, cast as the giant caught off guard. That’s a profoundly unsettling idea, but In the Valley of Elah also uses the American flag to bring you to tears. It’s the first Hollywood Iraq movie to remind me of a Vietnam film like Coming Home, and it does more than disturb. It scalds, moves, and heals. A