In the Valley of Elah

The Contenders

Release date: Sept. 14 Distributor: Warner Independent Pictures

“Crash” director and co-writer Paul Haggis’ first helming effort since that film won picture Oscar two years ago has not lit a fire at the box office — less than $7 million so far — but as long as the Iraq war is a reality, this grim investigative drama about its consequences at home might still stir the Academy.

Although it took until the Vietnam war was over for movies about that conflict’s effect on its participants and their loved ones to be made, “The Deer Hunter” and “Coming Home,” and later, “Platoon,” were big hits with voters. Filmmakers aren’t waiting until an end to hostilities in Iraq to tell vibrant stories about what participants are experiencing.

“Elah” is a more nuanced screenplay than Haggis’ Oscar-winner for “Crash,” which could stand him in good stead if voters eschew the more ham-fisted Iraq-inspired dramas.

But while critics were mixed about the pic’s overall power, they almost uniformly praised Oscar-winning star Tommy Lee Jones’ understated power as the retired military officer searching for his missing son, a recently returned soldier. “There is something inarguable, something irreducibly honest and right, about Mr. Jones’s performance,” wrote A.O. Scott in the New York Times.

The appearance of two other previous Academy winners — Susan Sarandon as the wife whose emotions Jones tries to shield, and Charlize Theron as the police officer assigned to the case — can’t hurt the movie’s chances, either.

Having a banner year is cinematographer Roger Deakins, who brings a harsh, dry poetry to the arid landscapes of “Elah,” but is also represented by “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” and “No Country for Old Men.”

See photos, trailer and more on ‘In the Valley of Elah’

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