In the Valley of Elah

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This review was written for the theatrical release of "In the Valley of Elah." 

Paul Haggis has not only avoided the dreaded sophomore slump, but the director and co-writer of the Oscar-winning "Crash" has returned with another bona-fide contender.

Ostensibly a murder-mystery set against the backdrop of the war in Iraq, "In the Valley of Elah" is a deeply reflective, quietly powerful work that is as timely as it is moving.

Further graced by an exceptional Tommy Lee Jones lead performance that would have to be considered one of the finest in the 60-year-old actor's career, the Warner Independent release is getting a little preliminary festival exposure at Venice and Toronto before opening in limited engagements on Sept. 14.

Strong word-of-mouth should ensure that the film plays well into awards season.

For those not up on their Old Testament, "In the Valley of Elah" refers to the place where David slew Goliath. It's an apt metaphor for the battle undertaken by Jones, as a grieving father fighting his way through a bureaucratic quagmire in search of the truth, and by the young men and women who are facing insurmountable odds of emerging physically and/or emotionally unscathed from an increasingly controversial conflict.

Jones' Hank Deerfield is a former military MP who receives a call that his son, Mike (Jonathan Tucker, in flashbacks) has gone AWOL after returning from active duty in Iraq. When the elder Deerfield shows up in Albuquerque, N.M., to conduct his own personal investigation, it's subsequently discovered that his son has been a victim of foul play.

In his efforts to find out what really happened, Hank initially butts heads with Emily Sanders (a no-nonsense Charlize Theron), a recently promoted police detective who is fighting a couple of battles of her own -- against the close-knit military brass, and for respect from her colleagues, who make unsubtle intimations about her relationship with her boss (Josh Brolin).

As Hank stubbornly soldiers on, Emily eventually lends her support. As the two begin to piece together the events that led up to Mike's disappearance, Hank is also forced to take stock of his own belief system.

In part an adaptation of a Playboy magazine article by Mark Boal called "Death and Dishonor," the Haggis version is an eloquently written portrait of a man clinging to logic during a time of confusion and turmoil.

With equal amounts bravado, anguish and, ultimately, remorse filling the crevices of his world-weary visage, Jones never has been better; Theron also effectively portrays the multifaceted dimensions of a single mother and small-town detective whose tough exterior conceals a considerable amount of vulnerable self-doubt.

Making the most of the few scenes she has, Susan Sarandon is affecting as Jones' dutiful wife, while Frances Fisher does likewise as a topless bartender who provides Jones with some valuable leads.

Production values are equally accomplished, from cinematographer Roger Deakins' stirring visual compositions to production designer Laurence Bennett's tarnished Americana to Mark Isham's achingly poignant, string-laden score.

IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH
Warner Independent Pictures
Warner Independent Pictures presents in association with Nala Films, Summit Entertainment and Samuels Media, a Blackfriar's Bridge production
Credits:
Director-screenwriter: Paul Haggis
Producers: Paul Haggis, Laurence Becsey, Patrick Wachsberger, Steven Samuels, Darlene Caamano Loquet
Executive producers: Emilio Diez Barroso, Bob Hayward, David Garrett, Erik Feig, James Holt, Stan Wlodkowski
Director of photography: Roger Deakins
Production designer: Laurence Bennett
Music: Mark Isham
Costume designer: Lisa Jensen
Editor: Jo Francis
Cast:
Hank Deerfield: Tommy Lee Jones
Det. Emily Sanders: Charlize Theron
Joan Deerfield: Susan Sarandon
Sgt. Carnelli: James Franco
Mike Deerfield: Jonathan Tucker
Evie: Frances Fisher
Lt. Kirklander: Jason Patric
Chief Buchwald: Josh Brolin
Cpl. Penning: Wes Chatham
Running time -- 120 minutes
MPAA rating: R

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