When career MP Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones, "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada") gets a phone call informing him that his son has been home from Iraq for days but is now missing, he heads to Fort Rudd, New Mexico to investigate his boy's disappearance. He strikes up a tentative partnership with local Detective Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron, "Monster," "North Country") and tells her young son the story of David and Goliath because he believes what Mike (Jonathan Tucker, "The Deep End," "Hostage") experienced in Iraq is akin to what happened 3000 years ago "In the Valley of Elah."
Writer/director Paul Haggis ("Crash"), 'inspired by' Mark Boal's Playboy story Death and Dishonor,” combines a murder mystery with an anti-war message, but his symbolism is either sketchy or blatant and his revelatory flashbacks do not provide the emotional grounding to bring his message home. Fine performances from Tommy Lee Jones and Theron and the investigation itself maintain interest, but Haggis's film disintegrates just when it should be delivering its final punch.
Our first bit of overt symbolism is the upside down flag Deerfield spots at a school and rights while instructing a Salvadoran custodian on proper flag care. The international distress signal of a country in so deep it needs help getting out is a nice touch, but its reason for being that way is not. When Deerfield arrives at Fort Rudd, New Mexico, he's treated with the utmost respect by Sergeant Dan Carnelli (James Franco, "Spider-Man 3") and Mike's roommate Bonner (Iraq war veteran Jake McLaughlin), but is given no useful info and told he cannot take any of his son's possessions. He slips a cell phone into his pocket unobserved and finds Gabriel (Rick Gonzalez, "Coach Carter," "Roll Bounce"), another heavy-handed reference, to retrieve whatever he can from the 'fried' phone. Hank pores over Mike's still photos and keeps coming back to one, puzzling over its meaning. Over the course of the film, Gabriel delivers patchy videos Mike has shot "Blair Witch" style (and in situations most people would not be thinking about filming).
Detective Sanders is introduced as the victim of her male colleagues who delight in sending animal abuse cases her way. She's abrupt with Deerfield, pawning him off on the military police who should be handling his case, but when a dismembered burned body is identified as his son, she agrees to take him to the field where it was discovered. Deerfield questions the locals and keeps trying to piece things together as Sanders fights to regain jurisdiction of the case from Fort Rudd's Lt. Kirklander (Jason Patric, "Narc," "The Alamo"). Things come to a head when Nick runs into topless bartender Evie (Frances Fisher, "Titanic," "House of Sand and Fog") at a diner. Her look at Mike's photos calls prior testimony given by his fellow soldiers into question and begins to bring focus to an almost inconceivable truth (although a 'look at me' bit of foreshadowing involving a drop of blood will point to the obvious much earlier).
Lee Jones gives Nick the bearing of a lifelong military man and the morals of a long held belief system without the cliched rigidity often associated with career soldiers. As played by Jones, Nick's modesty is endearing (he puts on a wet shirt rather than be seen by Sanders in his T-shirt and keeps pointed eye contact speaking to the topless Evie). There are no histrionics in this performance, just tangible concern, love, and melancholy. Jones lets us see the beliefs of a lifetime undone in his eyes. Theron gives a restrained performance that she disappears into every bit as much as she did in "Monster." She's determined to be a good cop and win the respect of Deerfield without kowtowing. Sarandon is effective as the grieving mom, but the part of Joan offers her little else.
Haggis was wise to mix two real war vets into his young cast and they are the most effective. The Matt Damonish Jake McLaughlin makes an impressive debut playing two ends against a chilling middle and Wes Chatham makes Corporal Steve Penning a charming bully. Experienced actor Mehcad Brooks ("Glory Road") is left in the background, but as initial suspect Private Ortiez, Victor Wolf shows another side of war fatigue. Josh Brolin ("The Dead Girl," "Grindhouse") is notable as Sander's boss Chief Buchwald.
Haggis' David and Goliath metaphor provides a nice artsy title for his film, but it doesn't really work. When we finally see 'what really happened' back in Iraq, we get a calamitous and unnecessary decision by Mike (don't Army Jeeps have horns?) that causes him to be wracked with guilt and warps the group dynamic. Haggis' attempt to be 'oh so shattering' merely made me shrug, but his film shouldn't be dismissed either (and he has scores of detractors just waiting to do so). "In the Valley of Elah's" anti-war message is just too opaquely relayed, but the road getting to it offers worthy diversions.
Robin did not see this film.
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