September 20, 2007

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In the Valley of Elah (R)
Tommy Lee Jones investigates the disappearance of his son, an AWOL soldier recently home from Iraq, in In the Valley of Elah, a solid character study of a man who slowly loses his faith.

Hank (Jones) is a retired military man living a pleasant retired life with his wife Joan (Susan Sarandon) when he learns that his son Mike (Jonathan Tucker) is back from Iraq but has gone missing. Tell Mike to report in or he’ll be listed as AWOL, a military official tells Hank. Not willing to wait for his son to turn up, Hank heads to the military base his son returned to when he arrived back in the country. Polite smiles and a gentle brush-off from military officials and from local police detective Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron) tell Hank, a former military police investigator, he’ll be leading this search on his own. Soon, though, a body (or rather body parts) is found and the mystery deepens. Hank doesn’t think much of the Army officials or the police who are investigating the case but perhaps sensing more sympathy from Emily, he nudges her into wresting the investigation back from the military. Slowly and with little more than his own wits, Hank tries to piece together what happened to his son Over There and what happened to him once he came back.

Charlize Theron is once again playing a character worn down by sexism and trying to muddle through a miserable job because it allows her to care for her child. Though a far more complex character than the one she played in North Country, Emily really needs to be the last such woman Theron plays for a while. Her performance here feels like the leftovers of some previously created character and not as well-developed as Hank’s character, which gives a weird uneven feel to their scenes together. Susan Sarandon, on the other hand, does a surprisingly good job with the limited amount of scene time she’s given. It’s hard to explain what makes her character so engaging without giving anything away but she is able to create a character who is clearly a strong woman but also one who has grown weary. We learn that the couple had an older son who died during military service. Without directly saying it, we’re able to understand that she’s gone along with — without completely buying — her men’s devotion to the military. She has maybe 10 minutes of screen time in the whole movie but she does something Sarandon hasn’t done for a while, which is make me want to see more of her character.

The bulk of the movie, of course, belongs to Jones. His Hank begins the movie a quiet man but one who is clearly a true believer in the rightness of the military. It’s a familiar character to anyone who’s ever known a military family and specifically a retired military life-er. It is not a political point of view — it has more to do with a respect for order, duty and public service, and a belief that the military (for which members have agreed to fight and die on command) will treat its members more or less with the same respect its members give it. Hank is the personification of this in the beginining of the movie. He sets out to find his son, expecting (or maybe hoping) that he’ll be somewhere blowing off the steam built up by combat. He’s calm enough about his mission to take a short detour to show a janitor at a school he passes on the way out of his town how to correctly fly the flag.

As the story goes on, however, we see Hank’s faith shaken. He takes his son’s seemingly destroyed phone to a repair man who slowly restores the video snippets of combat that were on it. We see a battlefield that is particularly dark, one that brings out the worst in its warriors and does the worst to them. Hank seems to lose faith in the “rightness” of things and clearly, by the end of the movie, believes that — even for the always dark and difficult and chaotic realm of combat — a particularly destructive kind of chaos has taken hold of this present situation.

The title is in reference to the story of David and Goliath. Hank is a kind of David, fighting the military machine for answers, as is Emily, given little respect by her peers but determined to see the case through. The soldiers are Davids of a sort too, fighting against the giant that is the war machine to keep some little piece of their own humanity and sanity. But perhaps the true heart of the movie is best illuminated in a question asked by Emily’s son — which is, why would a king send David, such a young man, out to fight his battles? Why send, basically, boys out to die and be scarred (physically, psychologically) in war, especially one that has ceased to make sense? The movie offers no answers but it makes a good case that the question is one worth consideration. B

Rated R for violent and disturbing content, language and some sexuality/nudity. Written and directed by Paul Haggis (Mark Boal also has a story credit), In the Valley of Elah is two hours long and distributed in limited release by Warner Independent Pictures.