In the Valley of Ellah (2024)

By odd coincidence, Paul Haggis's excellent thriller In the Valley of Elah, inspired by a true story about bringing the Iraq War back home to Middle America, is extremely close to a picture set in the aftermath of the Vietnam war, the Coen Brothers' magnificent No Country for Old Men, which opened here last week. Both are set in New Mexico, are photographed by British cinematographer Roger Deakins, turn upon the consequences of an extremely violent murder that's not shown on screen, and have as a central character a middle-aged lawman of great probity, who leaves his wife to embark on a journey of discovery.

The lawman is played by Tommy Lee Jones and in each, there's a crucial scene where he meets a fellow retired law officer played by Texan actor Barry Corbin. If that's not enough, Josh Brolin, the fugitive protagonist in No Country for Old Men has a cameo role as a time-serving police cop in In the Valley of Elah

Here, Tommy Lee Jones plays Hank Deerfield, a former regular soldier, who served as a military police sergeant in the Vietnam war. He runs a small gravel transport business in Tennessee and lives with the pain of his elder son having been killed in a helicopter accident at Fort Bragg, headquarters of US Special Forces. His younger son, Mike, has just returned Stateside from a harrowing tour of duty with the infantry in Iraq, having sent his father some cryptic photographs and an unexplained appeal for help by phone.

The picture opens with Hank being informed that Mike has gone AWOL from a military base in New Mexico, so he leaves his wife (Susan Sarandon) and gets into his pick-up truck to make the two-day drive to look into the case. The search for a son is a classic plot and one is immediately reminded of two other thrillers, decent but not as good as this: The Whistle Blower, where ex-soldier Michael Caine comes into conflict with the British intelligence establishment while investigating the death of his son, and Missing, in which middle-class businessman Jack Lemmon discovers dark secrets of American foreign policy when he goes to Chile after his son has disappeared during Pinochet's coup.

As in those films, In the Valley of Elah is both a search for the truth and a voyage of self-discovery in which the decent, patriotic Hank comes to question aspects of his own life and the faith he has put in his country. It takes him to lap-dancing bars, involves talk of drug smuggling and brings him into conflict with the military establishment, prevaricating and covering up, and with the local New Mexico cops who claim the affair is outside their jurisdiction. The boy's comrades-in-arms are polite and helpful, but something is amiss, and there's puzzling material from Iraq on Mike's cell phone.

The only person who comes to Hank's aid, initially with some reluctance, is a woman police detective, Emily (Charlize Theron), a single mother harassed by her misogynistic colleagues.

This is a thriller that is both surprising in its development and inexorable in its conclusions and the less I say of the plot the better. The movie is about the terrible things war does to people and the terrible things people do in war. The central thrust is contained in a piece of symbolism. Early on, the national flag is accidentally flown upside down, officially an appeal for help in a situation of danger. At the end, Old Glory is hoisted upside down on purpose.

Theron is excellent in a demanding role, but this is Jones's movie. He's in every scene and utterly superb. There is eloquence in those pouches the size of carpetbags beneath his eyes, the narrowing of his gaze, that slight smile, the tightening of the jaw, the measured, at times menacing voice, the sudden outbursts of violence. His face is a map of accumulated experience. Like the sheriff in No Country for Old Men, Hank is an unostentatiously religious man, a representative of traditional values being sorely tested.

The film's title comes from a bedtime story with which he entrances Theron's six-year-old son in a funny, deeply moving scene. The Valley of Elah is where David confronted Goliath and the moral Hank points out is about overcoming fear. There is, of course, a larger resonance to this story and an implicit political aspect as well.

In the Valley of Ellah (2024)
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