In the Valley of Elah
Written and directed by Paul Haggis

Starring Tommy Lee Jones, Charlize Theron


In the Valley of Elah

"In the Valley of Elah" is the place where David fought Goliath, in case you didn't know. To Tommy Lee Jones, a man who says grace before every meal and who tells the story to the young son of Charlize Theron, it's as true as the fact that his army son has gone missing after his unit has returned to Fort Rudd on rotation from Iraq. Jones, who now hauls gravel for a living in Tennessee, was once a Military Police investigator, and an army lifer, and he finds an ally in local police detective Theron, who survives sexist insults from her bosses every day. Jones drives to the base, where he's stonewalled, as he is in Theron's office. But he's a man who makes what we used to call hospital corners in his motel room; he's not going to give up.

They find his son, and it's not a pretty sight, so now the question becomes who did it and why. That's what the rest of "In the Valley of Elah" is about, and little by little we see Theron and Jones working their way through Army obstruction and her bosses' lack of interest until they find the answer. Among his son's possessions Jones finds the cell phone, and someone who can unravel the images on it that he took in Iraq; will they be helpful in solving the mystery? He and we watch them together.

There is no mention of the right or wrong of our Iraq invasion; what we do see is what being in the war can do to soldiers, and it's all that you might imagine. I wish I could say that the film is a masterpiece; it's not. It's too long by at least a half hour, and it gives us the new Tommy Lee Jones, a man who cannot smile, who has taken the persona he found and used in "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada," where it worked brilliantly as the grim and glum pursuer of truth, but here it just hangs over the film like an endless fog. There's just nothing attractive about him. The film gives us a very underused Susan Sarandon as Jones's wife, whose only job here is to cry; we can see her acting out crying as though she were in an improv class. On the other hand, Charlize Theron is once again magnificent - a beautiful woman who can act. She is all business here, paying no attention to her looks.

But director Paul Haggis's script is as mechanical as his last film, "Crash," and the denoument of "In the Valley of Elah" turns out to be much less than the buildup he's given us in the first hour and a half. When it's over we just walk out, looking for another film.