The year is 2004, and Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones) spent some years in the U.S. Army, as his sons had, but now, having lost one of them ten years ago, it looks as if he might have lost the other one as well. He receives a telephone call from the Army which tells him that his son, Mike, has gone AWOL and so he makes up his mind to track him down. They were never as close as he would have liked, but he feels that Mike would have been able to come to him if he was suffering a crisis, yet what if the struggles Mike was going through reflected the general malaise in the United States due to the war in Iraq?
Yes, director and screenwriter Paul Haggis had a lot of important issues on his mind and he was going to tell you all about them through the medium of the murder mystery. He based his tale on the true events that happened to a soldier in the U.S., and used those incidents to elaborate on how the conflict overseas was damaging both the troops and also the whole of their country. Early on, Deerfield stops at a public building which is flying the stars and stripes upside down, and he assists the janitor in hanging it the right way up, because the way it was indicates a distress signal.
Apart from the insulting idea that an immigrant to the U.S., the janitor, does not know which way up to hang one of the most famous symbols in the world, the scene is indicative of the tone of the rest of the film: painfully sincere and sorrowful. All that in a way that is saying, "Hey America, we're hurting, and the sooner we acknowledge that the better", making the whole experience something of a manly hug of comfort coupled with a few well-chosen words of sympathetic admonishment whispered in the country's ear. In its favour, there is a typically strong dramatic performance from Jones, but his character is simply there to be taught a lesson.
This means In the Valley of Elah comes across as patronising at best, as Deerfield leaves his wife Susan Sarandon behind (she is given next to nothing to do) to travel to Fort Rudd where his son was last seen. Although there is an ostensible investigation carried out by the Army, as he begins to dig Deerfield finds that there may be some kind of cover up in place, and opts to go to the police when the military politely closes the door in his face. This is where the other lead enters into it, with Charlize Theron as a detective, much put upon by her fellow officers who do not believe she is up the task because she is a woman in a man's world.
As Detective Emily Sanders, an unglamorous, professional-looking Theron does well with her material, but she doesn't prevent her character from being too much of a cliché. After effectively dismissing him, she comes round to Deerfield's way of thinking, and when Mike's dismembered body is found it is clear they are dealing with a murder investigation. However, the military decide to look after the matter themselves as the body was found on their property, although Sanders and the holding it all in but still grieving father of the victim are having none of that. What this is leading up to is a revelation that highlights the psychological harm that has been done to America's forces by the stresses of the Iraq war, although at least they have a home to go to - little thought is given to the Iraqis aside from a offputting and condescending dedication to their children at the end. The film may have its heart in the right place, but it needed righteous anger and what it offers is disappointed sighing, tutting and shaking of the head. Music by Mark Isham.