The last time Paul Haggis sat in the director's chair, he came away with a Best Picture Oscar for Crash, the ensemble treatise on racism set in contemporary L.A. His new film, In the Valley of Elah, takes on another hot-button topic--the war in Iraq--loosely adapting real events to allow Haggis to get back up on his soapbox. It's a noble endeavor, but not everyone will agree on whether he accomplishes the mission he sets for himself.
Tommy Lee Jones is Hank Deerfield, a retired military police officer whose son David goes missing after returning from a tour in Iraq. Hank hops in his truck and treks to New Mexico's Fort Rudd, but his inquiries prove fruitless--the military, in the form of drones played by Jason Patric and James Franco, thinks David's AWOL, and the local cops, repped by single mom Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron), don't want to upset the delicate balance betwixt the Army and the local civilians. When David's body turns up butchered and burned, Emily comes around, and it's up to Hank and her to connect the dots.
So, it's a murder mystery. Except that it's not, really. The whodunit aspect is a Maguffin to let Haggis talk war, and the end result is, sadly, too self-important. Haggis is not a filmmaker whose work can be described as subtle. However, In the Valley of Elah will speak to plenty of people. I personally find Haggis' style to be overwrought, but one can't deny that casting Jones as Hank is the anchor that keeps this film from veering into a screechy rant. Hank's own military bearing, his prickly demeanor and his inability to express the churning rage that lies just below the surface gives the picture true weight, and Haggis' smartest move is to let his own feelings about the war go unsaid by Jones, whose emotions of betrayal and loss remain hidden behind an exterior as welcoming as a badger or a cactus.
"It's the least I can do," says Emily, once she gains control of the investigation and brings Hank in to assist. "I'd say that's accurate" is his ichor-dripping response as he exits her car without giving her an opportunity to fire back. His performance stands out from the rest of the film, a truly sympathetic character who's nonetheless almost unlikable in his attitude and condescension.
In the Valley of Elah is sure to be controversial. It isn't an anti-military movie, but it is anti-war. Haggis is sincerely trying to explore what's happening to the men and women serving over there, how they're affected by their experience and what we're doing (answer: nothing) as a society to be understanding of those traumas and welcome them back.
But the film's message and method of expressing it is muddy, perhaps a decent metaphor for anyone conflicted about the war in Iraq--there simply are no easy solutions. Hank thinks his quest is to find his son, but as he gets closer to the truth, he learns that he needs to find out what happened to his son in Iraq and what kind of person the war turned him into. Until he learns that, he won't understand why David was left, scorched and butchered, in a field off a New Mexico access road. As he learns more about his kid from members of his squad and unearths video clips assembled from his son's phone, Hank discovers that the true villain is the war itself--that whoever murdered his son is more cog than machine, more symptom than disease.
That is the lesson Haggis is trying to impart--that the people who leave aren't always the same when they get back. But he sneaks up on his subject instead of tackling it head on. Crash won the Oscar amid fierce debate over its merits; in that sense, with In the Valley of Elah, Haggis picks up right where he left off.