The Deerfields are notified that their son, Mike, just back from Iraq, has gone AWOL. Hank informs his wife (Susan Sarandon). Then, the soldier from Tennessee, a former military policeman, hops into his pickup for the long drive to Fort Rudd in New Mexico. He drives through the neon wilderness where his search for his soldier son makes him reconsider his role as a soldier father.
In New Mexico, while civilian and military authorities engage in a jurisdictional skirmish over accountability, Hank conducts his own investigation into his son's disappearance.
Stonewalled by Mike's squad mates and the officer in charge (Jason Patric), Hank finds an unlikely ally in a detective (Charlize Theron), a single mother who shares his dour professionalism, his parental duty, and his growing horror at the corruption of values dearly held.
Haggis, the Canadian-born screenwriter of the powerfully underplayed Million Dollar Baby and writer/director of the pyrotechnic and overwrought Crash, wisely scales his film to Jones' undemonstrative performance, his words rationed as strictly as bullets during a siege. Jones contains Hank's emotions so that the audience feels them most keenly.
The film follows the familiar structure of a police procedural, each piece of new evidence pointing to a different individual culprit. This is the foreground of Haggis' film. But background, and backstory, looms.
With casualty reports on the radio and combat footage on TV in the forlorn diners where Hank eats, the war is like the elevator music no longer heard. Haggis' objective is to turn up the volume, coaxing his characters (and the audience) to more carefully listen to the conflict that they, and we, have tuned out.
Cinematographer Roger Deakins leeches the color from his images, all the better to focus on Hank, his detective work. To collect potential evidence, Hank politely asks if he can take Mike's Bible - while pocketing his PDA. The partially corrupted video files stored on Mike's device give Hank incomplete, and unsettling, glimpses of the ground war in Iraq.
Soldiers screaming and wildly firing their weapons. Civilians in the way of military vehicles. In their confusion and terror, people behaving as their worst selves. In short, a haiku of war that makes Hank see the conflict from a different perspective.
Haggis freights his film with allusions more effective on the page than on the screen. The flag symbolism and David-and-Goliath allegory are heavy going, but Jones' stripped-down performance, dynamic as a truth-seeking missile, makes superfluous all metaphors.
In the Valley of Elah *** (out of four stars)
Directed by Paul Haggis, written by Haggis and Mark Boal. With Tommy Lee Jones, Charlize Theron, Susan Sarandon, Jason Patric and James Franco. Distributed by Warner Independent Films.
Running time: 2 hours.
Parent's guide: R (violent content, medical-examiner candor, sexuality, nudity, profanity)
Playing at: limited area theaters including Regal King of Prussia 16, AMC Neshaminy 24, AMC Plymouth Meeting 12, and Ritz at the Bourse.
Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog, "Flickgrrl," at http://go.philly.com/flickgrrl/.