The Iraq war has proven as nettlesome to Hollywood moviemakers as it has to Washington policymakers, and “In the Valley of Elah” continues the trend. Working overtime to be an important statement on domestic dissatisfaction with the war and the special price paid by vets and their families, Paul Haggis’ follow-up to “Crash” is too self-serious to work as a straight-ahead whodunit and too lacking in imagination to realize its art-film aspirations. Lightning probably won’t strike twice for Haggis, with prestigious fall festival premieres unlikely to translate into strong domestic cash flow for Warner Independent, though foreign returns could be brighter.
At its heart, “Elah’s” storytelling (inspired from a true story first reported by Mark Boal in Playboy) is the stuff of a James Patterson thriller rather than a grandly elegiac reading of one father’s tragedy. Unwilling to opt for the pulp-trash excesses of such military thrillers as “The General’s Daughter,” the film ends up delivering a poorly conceived message of alarm, bluntly signaling that the war is causing America’s sons and daughters severe psychological damage. It also continues a line of recent movies addressing the first Gulf War (“Jarhead”) and the current one (“Home of the Brave,” “Grace Is Gone”) that fail to capture the realities of war experience and familial angst beyond basic truisms and pictorial surfaces.
A Vietnam vet, retired Army sergeant and Tennessee truck-hauler, Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones) receives a call from Fort Rudd that his son Mike (Jonathan Tucker) is missing, though his unit is back from Iraq. Without having even a modest discussion with long-suffering wife Joan (Susan Sarandon), Hank drives to the New Mexico base to glean more information and hopefully reunite with his son. When Hank arrives, he finds that Mike’s unit buddies are keeping mum and base officers like Lt. Kirklander (Jason Patric) and Sgt. Carnelli (James Franco) are little more than bureaucrat lackeys with little interest in the case.
Hank gradually earns the respect of one of the local civilian cops in neighboring Bradford, Det. Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron), informing her that Mike “has been bringing democracy to a shithole … (and) deserves more than this.” Not one for subtlety, Haggis ensures that Emily is not only the only woman in her department, forever marginalized by her male colleagues, but that she’s also a single mom to a cute boy (Devin Brochu).
When a murder scene appears to be on the borderline between Army and local jurisdictions, the locals — except increasingly suspicious Emily — are willing to hand it over to the MPs for investigation.
The film awkwardly shifts between Hank’s emotional realities — as he watches some disturbing vid clips recovered from Mike’s cell phone — and a cycle of fairly obvious red herrings. One, involving Mike’s unit buddy Robert (Victor Wolf), consumes an inordinate amount of running time, and amounts to a one-dimensional portrayal of American-style bigotry.
While taciturn Hank, a man of so few words that he verges on being mean, cold and heartless, busts a few heads on his way to getting answers, Emily doggedly gets into extended verbal tussles with every authority figure in sight, from Kirklander to her immediate boss, police chief Buchwald (Josh Brolin).
Much of this is woefully familiar in dramatic terms, but viewers may find welcome distractions in cinematographer Roger Deakins’ grandly panoramic widescreen visions of a contemporary American West — emphasizing the barrenness of the places people live and work — as well as Jones’ laser-focused performance, which is almost radical in its deliberately hardened flatness. As integral and crucial as each piece is to pic, both Deakins and Jones operate in worlds of their own, almost intimidating in their individual power and concentration. Theron gamely works hard to match Jones on screen, but her perf recalls the thankless roles so many of George C. Scott’s many co-stars had to settle for. While vet thesps like Patric, Sarandon and Brolin come and go (even the superb Frances Fisher, as a topless barkeep, feels underused), rookie actor and Iraq vet Jake McLaughlin has a few exceptional scenes with Jones that impressively suggest a hidden world of hurt.
Most production departments, particularly Laurence Bennett’s site-specific production design, are solid, though considerably less of Mark Isham’s plodding and glum score would have been more; ditto some of the song choices (including a closer by Annie Lennox). Odd title, which will surely be a commercial impediment, alludes to the Israeli location of the biblical battle between David and Goliath.