The shadow of death: In the Valley of Elah 

click to enlarge Tommy Lee Jones gives the performance of his career in - Paul Haggis anti-war film.
  • Tommy Lee Jones gives the performance of his career in Paul Haggis anti-war film.

*In the Valley of Elah (R)

Kimball's Twin Peak, Tinseltown

Paul Haggis is the rare filmmaker who lives to challenge his audience. He doesn't make crowd-pleasers; his movies polarize and provoke, demanding viewers to question their values and beliefs. His Oscar-winning directorial debut, Crash, was a divisive film that operated in dramatic, emotional uppercuts with little appreciation for subtlety.

And yet this follow-up, the important, powerful, anti-war film In the Valley of Elah, manages to be equally compelling. There's no doubt that In the Valley of Elah is one of the best of the year.

Based on a true story first reported by Playboy's Mark Boal, Elah stars Tommy Lee Jones as Hank Deerfield, a retired military police officer whose youngest son (Jonathan Tucker) returns from a tour of duty in Iraq only to be tragically murdered on his own soil. The film follows Hank as he investigates the murder with the help of a local cop (Charlize Theron). The complicated case involves jurisdictional issues, contradicting alibis, and war vets who returned home to discover that it's no longer the place they left behind. Not for them, anyway.

Elah says a lot about war and the effects felt by its soldiers while devoting very little actual screen time to it. The chaos is presented in snippets filmed by Deerfield's son's video camera, with each transmission offering a new piece of the puzzle. This structure delivers an incredibly personal story of human strength by way of an absorbing police procedural. Haggis' question of whether this war is worth such deep emotional wounds is heard loud and clear.

The rock-solid cast doesn't hurt, either. Susan Sarandon gives a heartbreaking, if underwritten, performance as Hank's wife; Theron brings a steel-eyed conviction to her thankless role; Tucker, brooding with intensity, is absolutely fantastic in just a few brief minutes of screen time; and supporting players Jason Patric, Josh Brolin, James Franco, Jake McLaughlin and Wes Chatham all offer strong efforts.

But this is Jones' show, and it's the greatest performance of his career. The bags under Hank's weary eyes, the deep lines in his forehead and his dry sense of humor convey everything we need to know about him.

Haggis has grown as a filmmaker since Crash. The direction is assured, and he shows significant improvement behind the camera, collaborating with veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins to give the film an appropriately washed-out color palette. His writing is also much more confident; though Elah doesn't pack the emotional wallop of Crash, credit the script for being less interested in the hows than the whys.

While Haggis' decision to end the film the way he does will have his critics accusing him of laying his message on too thick, it takes nothing away from the stunning achievement of this film.

In the Valley of Elah concerns every parent's worst nightmare, and though the film follows the journey of a conservative patriot, it is Haggis' heart that beats at the center of this story. It will stick with you long after the lights come up.


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