It's interesting to read the early reviews for In the Valley of Elah, the latest film from divisive director Paul Haggis. Even among the positive ones, there's a common "I didn't like Crash, but I liked this" sentiment. For the record, I never saw Crash. (Nor did I see Brokeback Mountain, Munich, Capote, or Good Night, and Good Luck. Seemed like a good year to sit out the Oscars. Still does.)
So I went into a screening last week with an only mildly skeptical clean slate. Unlike Crash (as I understand it), this film follows a single plot with only two major characters. Tommy Lee Jones plays a retired military police officer who returns to his old base to find out why his son, recently returned from Iraq, has gone AWOL. Unable to find any colleagues who still work there, he's shut out of the investigation process and forced to try the local authorities (represented by junior detective Charlize Theron).
This makeshift investigative team (taking the Law & Order mold of gruff older cop and uneasy younger cop to the extreme) stumbles upon some misdeeds by soldiers off the base, and begins to unravel the mystery themselves. While an issue of anti-immigration is briefly presented, the real border politics are between the military and the civilians, and Haggis wisely chooses to go beyond jurisdictional matters and explore that conflict a little.
Let's face it, though: this movie is really about the war. The son's damaged cell phone contains scrambled video images of his experiences in and out of combat. We learn vicariously what happened abroad that made his fellow soldiers so disaffected now that they've returned. The movie seems to ask: if war is hell, what does that make its surviving veterans? An answer is provided eventually, and we're not supposed to like it.
There is an element of emotional manipulation here, but it's hard to complain when Tommy Lee Jones is so marvelously stoic. I mentioned Law & Order before, and this film plays out much like a TV crime procedural. But it's Jones and his no-nonsense attitude that frames the entire movie, gives a dark subject a bit of levity, and makes the experience much better than it should have been. As I watched, I thought about how long ago that Oscar from The Fugitive was (1993), and how it might be his time again.