A few days after returning stateside from a tour of duty in Iraq, a young soldier goes AWOL. His father, Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones), himself a retired non-commissioned officer, goes in search of him. It soon becomes clear that his son was murdered and dismembered near a military base where he was temporarily reassigned, the chief suspects being four buddies with whom he served overseas. But In the Valley of Elah is not so much a whodunit as a whydunnit, an investigation of why a group of quite ordinary American soldiers would find themselves involved in such a brutal and essentially meaningless crime.
That theme, however, is at first artfully disguised in the film, which was written and directed by Paul Haggis, prime author of Crash as well as the writer or co-writer of such excellent Clint Eastwood screenplays as Million Dollar Baby and Letters from Iwo Jima. Haggis is a man with a gritty, honest sensibility, particularly attuned to life as it's lived in our country at the lower edges of society. But he's also a pretty canny movie guy, initially presenting his material as a fairly conventional mystery, with the icily contained and taciturn Hank, who was a criminal investigator during his military career, playing a fairly typical wild card the guy who keeps asking difficult questions while everyone else pretty much wants to process the case as briskly as possible. Hank is a bleak sort of man, perfectly content to eat in coffee shops featuring Formica décor, and to make his own bed all neatly squared corners in his budget motel. He does not laugh a lot or, if memory serves, at all and only rarely raises his voice despite his many frustrations. His only, and initially wary ally, is a young detective named Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron), who is endlessly harassed by the male cops in her squad room and obliged to deal with a jurisdictional dispute: did the crime take place on military or civilian property?
Somehow, this unlikely pair form an alliance, mostly because each of them is looked upon as annoying irrelevance by both the military and the local police, but also because single mom Emily is embarking on the kind of marginal life all low pay and grim dutifulness that Hank has endured all his years. This elicits his (austerely expressed) sympathy as well as ours. Yet, in a sense, everything I've so far described the plot, the physical and emotional landscape of the picture is a diversion, an attempt to lull us by evoking genre conventions, make us think we're involving ourselves in nothing more than the procedural routines of a well-made crime story.
But that's not the case. The Big Question asked by In the Valley of Elah (in case you've forgotten, that's where David slew Goliath) is this: What does a war without mercy or justification do to the young men and women who are obliged to fight it? This is not a matter Hank Deerfield has previously ever had to consider. He has served his country unquestioningly and, as important, the movie hints that his belief system, both religious and political, is basically blue-collar, red-state conservatism. But as he investigates his son's death, he begins to see that the young soldier's life and those of his mates was coarsened by service in Iraq.
I love the way Tommy Lee Jones acknowledges the change in his son, the changes in the army he faithfully served, the changes in the world we all inhabit. It's no more than a fleeting expression, a flicker in his eyes, and the result is not obvious anger or weary cynicism. It is a kind of acceptance that does not vitiate his desire to see justice done. This is, I think, a great performance by one of the great movie minimalists. And Haggis has provided him with a perfectly matched context, recording without overt commentary the strip-joint, hooker-ridden town that exists to serve the needs of soldiers too young for thought to govern appetites, the kind of place where a convenience store clerk cheerfully works topless. Is the movie an analogy of Iraq? Not perfectly, but well enough. Does it say something about contemporary American cheesiness? Yes, to some degree. Does Hank Deerfield's righteousness survive only because he shifts his moral position? Yes, but mutedly, without a jarring triumphant note. This is a sad, subtle and very good movie, designed not so much to make you think, but to make you feel the impact of large events on little lives.