Though it sounds like a picturesque spot, no one is bringing a picnic lunch or having any fun "In the Valley of Elah." The characters in this somber film have the glum look of individuals delivering a Very Important Message to the world. And though this film in fact does have something crucial to convey, this is not the way to go about it.
Directed by Paul Haggis in his follow-up to the Oscar-winning "Crash," "In the Valley of Elah" (named, it's not clear why, after the place David met Goliath) is an honorable, earnest film that deals with a subject not usually touched by Hollywood: the pernicious effect war in general and the current one in particular has on the young people we send to fight. "He couldn't wait to get over there, to help the good guys," a friend says of one such soldier, adding pointedly, "We shouldn't send heroes to places like Iraq."
But, paradoxically, the film's sense of responsibility proves almost paralyzing, allowing the production to be overwhelmed by the seriousness of what it's attempting. Almost all of "Elah's" elements, from the somber music of Mark Isham to the intentionally washed-out cinematography of the gifted Roger Deakins, combine to leach out whatever vigor the film might have.
This lethargy extends to stars Tommy Lee Jones and Charlize Theron, neither of whom does exactly galvanizing work. And though the film's powerful themes ultimately get a hearing, it takes a while to get there: The exposition's lumbering pace (Haggis, initially inspired by a Mark Boal magazine article, did the script) gives "Elah" a plodding quality that doesn't dissipate until things heat up in the second hour.
"Elah's" narrative proper begins with an early morning phone call to the Tennessee home of Hank Deerfield (Jones) letting him know that his soldier son Mike is not in Iraq as he supposes but a) newly returned to the U.S. and b) AWOL from his barracks in New Mexico. That just doesn't sound like my boy, says Dad, who decides to drive across the country and find out just where Mike is.
Deerfield would seem well-qualified to take on this quest. More than just a patriot who's a zealot for flag etiquette, the man is a retired MP, a former Army lifer with beaucoup investigative skills and, inevitably, a long-suffering wife (an underutilized Susan Sarandon) he leaves at home.
But once in New Mexico, even a man of Deerfield's skills hits a brick wall. Not that everyone on the base isn't super-polite, but no one is especially forthcoming and for all intents and purposes, it seems that Mike has simply disappeared into thin air.
In desperation, Deerfield goes to the local police, where he runs into detective Emily Sanders (Theron), who is having adjustment problems of her own and is unable to help with a strictly Army matter. But then a body is found on a remote corner of city property, and the discovery changes everything.
That scenario may sound dynamic, but it isn't. For one thing, everything in "Valley of Elah" takes too long to play out, and there are eventually so many threads to track down in Mike's disappearance, including moving images gradually recovered from his mobile phone, that it is easy to lose interest.
Though it is satisfying to see Theron in a pulled-back role as a solid citizen detective, the glumness of "In the Valley of Elah" affects her as well. The film likes the thought of Sanders and Deerfield as an investigative odd couple, but they come off as no more than Grim and Grimmer, too mournful a team to make any kind of emotional connection with an audience.
Though Jones is too effective an actor not to make his presence felt, starring him in "Elah" creates problems that didn't need to be there. Jones' characters are difficult in the best of circumstances, and having him play an unapologetically surly and unpleasant pain in the neck, no matter what the reasons, makes Hank Deerfield almost impossible to sympathize with. Haggis initially thought of Clint Eastwood, an actor who can do intensity without Jones' truculent baggage, and that would have been much the better choice.
Perhaps the most unexpected way to see where "In the Valley of Elah" could have been stronger is to compare it with the highly adrenalized "The Bourne Ultimatum." Unlikely as it seems, both films share an interest in the effect propaganda about the necessity of doing "what it takes to save American lives" has on the soldiers subjected to it. Admittedly a very different kind of film, "In the Valley of Elah" could have used some of "Bourne's" life force in spreading its critical message.
"In the Valley of Elah." MPAA rating: R for violent and disturbing content, language and some sexuality/nudity. Running time: 2 hours. In general release.