In Monroe, Tennessee, Hank Deerfield, an aging warrior, gets a call that his son, just back from 18 months' fighting in Iraq, is missing from his base. Hank drives to Fort Rudd, New Mexico, to search. Within a day, the charred and dismembered body of his son is found on the outskirts of town. Deerfield pushes himself into the investigation, marked by jurisdictional antagonism between the Army and local police. Working mostly with a new detective, Emily Sanders, Hank seems to close in on what happened. Major smuggling? A drug deal gone awry? Credit card slips, some photographs, and video clips from Iraq may hold the key. If Hank gets to the truth, what will it tell him? Written by
'War is hell' but perhaps it is the postwar that is most telling. At least that is the thesis of Paul Haggis' latest film, In the Valley of Elah, a story of a father's quest for his son that reveals some bitter truths about war. Not an easy film to swallow upfront, it is certainly one of the best films of the year.
A grizzled, former military policeman, Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones), is notified that his son, Mike, is AWOL after returning from the fighting in Iraq. What begins as a methodical search for his son's whereabouts becomes more tragic and clashes with local police and military brass. Where is his son, and what do his soldier buddies know about one fateful night near their base? And what if anything did happen to him in Iraq? These questions are answered in small pieces and with alarming implications. Hank's skills at police work help convince local Detective Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron) to take charge of the case despite the doubts of her own colleagues and the military, led by investigator Lt. Kirklander (Jason Patric). Mike's PDA has garbled video that begins to paint a disturbing picture of the war front. Hank's search takes an emotional toll on himself and his wife (Susan Sarandon). He and Emily form an uneasy alliance, and, amid theories and suspects, what emerges is an ominous portrait of war veterans on the homefront. Ultimately Hank comes face to face with a disarming truth about his son's fate and the possible involvement of his military brethren.
The story is based on actual events in 2001 in Tennessee, and its title references the mythic tale of David and Goliath set at a time when the rules of engagement were different than the present. Its sparse, simplistic structure of a mystery peppered with flashback video and imagery may seem on surface like an independent film, but its message and execution is on a grander scale and not merely with dialogue. With effective visuals, much is conveyed by silence, expression, or simple body language.
As with other Haggis films, things that seem ordinary and insignificant at the beginning have implications later on. Though not as overtly obvious with connecting a myriad of dots as in his Oscar winner Crash, the threads are all there to gradually weave together. It is refreshing that the jurisdictional conflict between local police and the military does not take a stereotypic turn of heavy handed conspiracy and cover-up even though the military investigators are not cast in the best light. It shares a similar feel with the recent Courage Under Fire where the truth is unearthed in small bits until a bigger picture emerges. A couple of minor plot points go nowhere such as Hank meeting an old comrade who may have connections with military intelligence.
As grandiose and flamboyant as was his Oscarwinning turn in The Fugitive, Tommy Lee Jones' acting here is equally underplayed; he is magnificent. Through the pain and guilt that creep over his lined features, you also feel his suffering, his loss, and understand his bitterness. His Hank is a proud man, a patriot, who wants the truth. The truth ultimately changes him forever. Equally up to the challenge is Theron, in a strong performance, whose detective is a single mother who must battle her own squad and superiors while trying to solve a mystery. Even Sarandon's brief moments are affecting as the long distance wife. The rest of the cast is very good; they become real people.
This is not simply the readjustment to the homefront done magnificently in The Best Years of Our Lives or the heavy use of dramatic love triangle to condemn the Vietnam War in Coming Home. Rather, it takes the concept of a given war and allows it to become the ultimate villain in an increasingly sordid mystery. Its ending calls to mind The Deer Hunter but with a more pessimistic bent. It most certainly vilifies the effects of war on its men.
It is significant that a passing quote, "We all do stupid things," says something about not just the horror of warfare, but what such conflict does to its soldiers, and how they become soulless monsters capable of the most brutal of crimes. This is a brave, imperfect film that sets a somber tone and never lets up. The final image is a statement that makes this perhaps the subtlest of antiwar films ever. Oscar nominations can start here with picture, direction, screenplay, and the duo of Jones and Theron. While not everyone will be willing to let the story unfold with its nuanced direction and understated acting, those who are patient will find a moving tale of innocence lost and corrupted.
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