In Paul Haggis’s In the Valley of Elah, Tommy Lee Jones plays Vietnam vet and former M.P., Hank Deerfield, whose son, Mike, after serving in Iraq, has gone AWOL in America. Jones has portrayed military men before, but Hank Deerfield is the role of a lifetime, and he has stripped himself of any vestige of vanity to play it. … Haggis, the writer-director of Crash, has done something shrewd: he has mounted a devastating critique of the Iraq war by indirection. Rather than dramatizing, say, the disillusion of a young soldier as he experiences the chaos of the occupation, he has moved disillusion into the soul of a military father. And the anguish that the father feels is all the more affecting because it’s held in check by Jones’s natural reticence … In creating the story, Haggis began with an actual murder – the death of Specialist Richard Davis, in 2003, as reported by Mark Boal in a sombre “Playboy” article published in May, 2004. Working with Boal, Haggis changed the military base and the name of the family, added material from other true stories culled from vets, and expanded the father’s role in tracking down his son’s killers. After Hank calls his wife (the telephone exchange between a stoical Jones and a distraught Susan Sarandon is a short, tragic movie in itself), he responds to the loss as a military man. He makes the bed in his cheap motel with tight hospital corners, and he uses his M.P.’s skills to find out what happened. The meaning of his son’s life, his own life, and the war itself may lie in the solution to the crime. In this search, he has no more than an uncertain ally: Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron), a single mother and a police detective…
Haggis has added elements of movie mythmaking to the real-life stories. Hank’s quest may remind you of earlier patriarchs played by John Wayne (in The Searchers) or George C. Scott (in Hardcore) who went looking for lost children. And the invention of a beautiful female detective who needs to prove herself can only be called pure Hollywood, though the role is crisply written by Haggis and sternly fleshed out by the toughest of cookies, Charlize Theron … Working both alone and together, these two thorny, rather solitary people make a good team, but Haggis, positioning them at odd angles to each other, respects the distance between them; even when they warm up a bit, he doesn’t pull on our heartstrings. In the movie’s austere scheme, they are the only heroes we’re going to get.
David Denby, “The New Yorker”, 17 September 2007
Cast and Credits
Sog.: Mark Boal, Paul Haggis. Scen.: Paul Haggis. F.: Roger Deakins. M.: Jo Francis. Scgf.: Laurence Bennett. Mus.: Mark Isham. Int.: Tommy Lee Jones (Hank Deerfield), Charlize Theron (detective Emily Sanders), James Franco (sergente Dan Carnelli), Susan Sarandon (Joan Deerfield), Josh Brolin (Buchwald), Jason Patric (tenente Kirklander), Jonathan Tucker (Mike Deerfield), Frances Fisher (Evie), Barry Corbin (Arnold Bickman), Zoe Kazan (Angie). Prod.: Paul Haggis, Laurence Becsey, Darlene Caamaño Loquet, Patrick Wachsberger per Corsan, Hwy61. Blu-ray