In the Valley of Elah

Paul Haggis made a lot of enemies when his shallow race-relations morality play “Crash” became inexplicably successful and won the Oscar for Best Picture. Now comes his follow-up, “In the Valley of Elah,” and all is forgiven. Where “Crash” was bombastic and heavy-handed, “Elah” is subtle. Where “Crash” was full of contrivances and coincidences, “Elah” is honest, raw, and real. I can hardly believe these films were written and directed by the same man.

Based on a true story and set in November 2004, “In the Valley of Elah” stars Tommy Lee Jones as Hank Deerfield, a retired military police officer who lives with his wife, Joan (Susan Sarandon), in a small Tennessee town. Their son, Mike (Jonathan Tucker), has been with the Army in Iraq. They are proud of him.

Hank gets a call one Sunday morning from Ft. Rudd, the Army base where Mike’s unit has recently come home. Mike is AWOL. It doesn’t sound like a huge emergency yet — no one is surprised that a young soldier just back from active duty in a war zone might want to disappear for a couple days and let off some steam — but obviously it’s a concern. Hank says he’ll see what he can find out.

He drives his old pickup truck to the base, several hours away in another small town. He meets the other men in Mike’s unit, all young, robust, and seemingly well-adjusted. They don’t know where Mike is, either. They laugh it off, figuring he’s with some girl somewhere.

By this point, Haggis has already let us know through the film’s somber tone that something is wrong. Hank has experience with police work, and he has a few clues to go on, including some video clips that Mike captured with his cell phone. He also works with Det. Sanders (Charlize Theron), a local cop, to investigate a crime scene that occurred on the border between Army property and city property that might relate to Mike.

I’ve seldom seen a movie as mournful as this one, or a performance as completely grounded in honesty as Jones’. There’s not a single moment that feels like “acting.” A scene in a quiet hallway, where Hank learns about his son’s secrets from an Army officer, is pure emotional devastation. Jones doesn’t react with big gestures or hysterics; he reacts with his eyes — and in his eyes you can see his heart breaking. I’d say it’s the clip they should show at the Oscars, but it’s better than that. It’s the clip they should show in acting classes and film schools.

Susan Sarandon, whose presence in a war-related film surely sounds alarms in some viewers’ minds, uses her few scenes as Hank’s wife to to perfectly capture the thoughts of a mother in this situation. The sadness, the anger, and the frustration all come through in appropriate bursts, again without artifice. There is no fakery in Haggis’ direction, either, no gimmicks or manipulations.

The film’s title refers to the location of the biblical showdown between David and Goliath. Hank tells the story to Det. Sanders’ young son, who is also named David (Devin Brochu), and who asks Hank, “Why would he want to fight a giant? He was just a boy.” The story is meaningful to Hank — patriotic, God-fearing, flag-saluting Hank — because it helps him understand why his sons and others join the military and go off to face obstacles bigger than themselves. The way to fight monsters, he tells David, is to get right up close to them and not be afraid.

From a story standpoint, the film is a whodunit: What happened to Mike Deerfield, and who’s responsible? Haggis follows that thread with satisfying attention to detail, parceling out clues, suspects, red herrings, and surprises in a way that falls right in line with the formulaic (I use that term in a positive, comfort-food sense) movies and crime shows we’re familiar with. If “In the Valley of Elah” were nothing more than a mystery about a missing soldier, it would be a crackerjack story.

But of course it’s more than that. It’s an elegiac and cathartic story about parental love and responsibility, about the terrible things that war does to people, how it can change and corrupt them. Is it an anti-war film? Yes: It’s opposed to war in general. It uses the current conflict as the backdrop, but it’s no different thematically from the post-Vietnam movies of the 1970s (“Apocalypse Now,” “The Deer Hunter,” etc.) that showed how war can destroy people. “In the Valley of Elah” doesn’t take a position on the Iraq War itself. What it opposes is what the Iraq War and all other wars do to the young men who have to fight them.

The film’s final shot has Hank doing something that makes a statement that will raise eyebrows. Some might say it’s heavy-handed, the way most of “Crash” was. I disagree with the statement Hank is making, but I also disagree that it’s heavy-handed for the film to include it. Quite the opposite: It makes perfect sense for Hank to feel this way. It’s a thundering final chord in a story that’s all about Hank’s conflicting emotions and allegiances. His feelings are plausible for a man in his situation. He’s been devastated by war, too.

A- (2 hrs., 4 min.; R, some strip club nudity, some gruesome images, scattered harsh profanity.)