Movie review: In 'Elah,' Tommy Lee Jones goes to war

  • Article by: COLIN COVERT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 21, 2007 - 9:24 AM

"In the Valley of Elah" pits a man's search for answers in his soldier son's death against his sense of duty and decency.

It's a variant of the phone call every military family dreads. Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones) learns that his son Mike, just back from Iraq, is missing from his New Mexico base and unless he turns up soon, the Army will have to declare him AWOL.

He's most likely raising hell and blowing off steam. It's not that uncommon, and the authorities are willing to look the other way if he returns soon. But Hank, a strict former Military Police sergeant who taught his boy duty and honor like the alphabet, can't believe he's gone delinquent. He packs his bag and makes the drive from Tennessee to see what he can turn up, offering his wife (Susan Sarandon) clipped assurances that everything's probably fine.

Everything is far from fine, so much so that ramrod patriot Hank can hardly wrap his mind around it. The grippingly suspenseful "In the Valley of Elah," based on the true story of a vanished soldier, begins as a police procedural, with the father using his decades-old investigative training in the search for his son.

As Hank doggedly interviews everyone around the base who might shed light on the disappearance, it becomes a character study of a man whose lifelong convictions are shaken to the core by ugly new realities. Ultimately, it's a tough, uncompromising drama about the different ways a military family can lose a child. The title, which refers to the site where David slew Goliath, grows in meaning with each new twist.

The film is engrossing on the level of mystery, as Hank confronts evasive witnesses and the realization that the Iraq-era Army, with recruiting standards lowered to admit criminals, isn't the force he remembers. Almost everyone underestimates Hank, who makes a modest living as a gravel hauler, yet his detective work trumps the professionals' efforts simply because his stake in the case forces him to look harder.

He can see the significance in a patch of trampled tumbleweed scrub or a fast-food receipt, and he views his son's static-scrambled cell phone videos again and again, sifting them for clues. As he digs beneath the surface of the case, Hank discovers unsettling things about his son, and himself.

Writer/director Paul Haggis, whose "Crash" was gallingly didactic, generally operates in a more sophisticated mode here. There is a political thread to the story, concerning a bureaucratic reluctance to expose misdeeds and the damage done when military training turns killing onto an ordinary act.

It's also an engrossing family drama. Observe the moving interplay between Jones and Sarandon (playing against her natural sensuality and warmth), as their stale marriage is jolted by the disappearance, pushing him beyond his icy reserve and her beyond her resentments.

There's much to admire here: a continually surprising storyline, an aversion to cliché, a gallery of characters who are neither stock heroes nor cardboard villains, and a flawless cast, including Charlize Theron as a police detective out of her depth and Jason Patric as a military man who wants the mess to quietly go away. Everyone is flawed, including Hank, a tireless investigator who's blind to warning signals from those closest to him.

Jones grabs the leading role with both hands and nails it to the wall in an Oscar-caliber performance. He's playing a man who's emotionally clamped down and physically controlled. When he stands, he stands at attention, and his laugh is a brusque bark, almost involuntary.

Yet Jones communicates Hank's every feeling. Norman Rockwell would have loved his face, strong and weathered yet tense with worry. When the powder keg finally explodes, it's not a phony moment of stand-up-and-cheer screen heroism but a clumsy, regrettable outburst that -- consistent with the film's theme -- hits the wrong target and damages Hank's own cause. Violence has no power to resolve life's complexities or ease its pain.

Haggis undermines his accomplishments when he mounts his soapbox for some intrusive sermonizing (Theron's male coworkers are chauvinist heels, and none of the Iraq vets we meet came through the experience intact), but even those missteps can't dim a performance this powerful. "In the Valley of Elah" shows Jones at the pinnacle of his craft.

Colin Covert • 612-673-7186

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  • IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH

    3 out of 4 stars

    The setup: A former Military Police sergeant (Tommy Lee Jones) probes the disappearance of his son, a soldier just returned from Iraq.

    What works: A towering performance by Jones in his best role since playing Marshal Sam Gerard in "The Fugitive," with strong supporting work from Susan Sarandon and Charlize Theron.

    What doesn't: Writer/director Paul Haggis' tendency to moralize.

    Great scene: Jones telling the story of David and Goliath to Theron's young son.

    Rating: R for violent and disturbing content, language and some sexuality/nudity.

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