Starring Tommy Lee Jones, Charlize Theron, and Susan Sarandon. Rated 14A. Opens Friday, September 21, at the Cinemark Tinseltown and the Fifth Avenue Cinemas
2In the Valley of Elah, named for the place where David reportedly took down Goliath, begins and ends with the U.S. flag flying upside down. This sign of distress is the most ham-handed symbol in a deliberate, sobersided look at the Iraq war's effect on the home front.
Canadian writer-director Paul Haggis, who demarcated racial barriers in the Oscar-winning Crash, here narrows his focus by sticking to one man, a nail-tough former army cop played unforgettably by Tommy Lee Jones. His Hank Deerfield, whose face appears to bear the furrows of a dry, overplowed field, is called in from retirement when informed that his youngest son, a soldier, has gone AWOL immediately on return from a gruelling Baghdad tour.
Hank drives from rural Tennessee to an army base in New Mexico, where he encounters one confusing lead after another. Things only get more tangled when local police make a grisly discovery, and there's a tussle between military police and regular cops led by a glum but vaguely idealistic detective played by Charlize Theron. Hank is haunted by visions of what his boy might have seen and, worse, done over there, visions that are fuelled by images and sounds recovered from a cellphone he finds.
These degraded video snippets allow Haggis to unravel the mystery while building another, deeper one, about how good kids can be turned into monsters by soulless, power-mad leaders. This also lets him break up long sections notable for desaturated colour and bleak landscapes, as captured by Roger Deakins, who has shot several films for the Coen brothers.
The two-hour movie belongs to Jones, but it is also remarkable for sharp, unfussy acting in the smaller parts. Susan Sarandon, who only has a few scenes, makes the most of them as Hank's wife, who has learned to live without expectations of warmth or good news and yet clearly loves her husband for his solidity. Jason Patric is strong as an officer caught between competing forces, and there are good bits with Wes Chatham as the lad's overly polite platoon mate and Frances Fisher as a barmaid who takes an interest in Hank's plight.
These elements never push the story toward melodrama, and Haggis's disinterest in artificial–as in entertaining–behaviour may strike some viewers as subtly self-ennobling. But the filmmaker isn't interested in nobility, let alone heroics. By its uncertain yet gently poetic finish, with the Stars and Stripes tattered by a dangerous and unpredictable wind, it's less clear than ever who is Goliath and who is the slayer of arrogant giants.