As slow, somber and pensive as it may seem, In the Valley of Elah tackles its Iraq War subject matter with such sledgehammer clumsiness that it risks giving viewers blunt head trauma. Based on actual 2004 events, Paul Haggis’ directorial follow-up to Crash begins like a preachy version of Hardcore, as retired military policeman Hank (Tommy Lee Jones) searches for his soldier son Mike (Jonathan Tucker) after the kid goes mysteriously AWOL following his return home from an 18-month tour of duty in Iraq. Hank is a brooding man of few words who doesn’t trust many and loves his country fiercely, to the point that – in the first of many jaw-droppingly inane, insensitive, and didactic moments – when he drives by a high school and sees the American flag hanging upside down, he stops to elucidate to the simpleminded Hispanic janitor that this incorrect display of the Stars and Stripes is actually a distress signal. But oh, if he only knew what distress the country was actually in!, screams Haggis’ film, which proceeds to strip away Hank’s rosy-eyed view of his native country via his subsequent homicide investigation once Mike is discovered murdered, burned, and chopped into pieces on the side of a rural road.
As with Home of the Brave, In the Valley of Elah wrings its hands over the aftershock effects of the war on those waging it, with Hank overcome by the dawning realization that maybe we’re not nobly bringing democracy to Iraq – as claimed by background news soundbites from W. – but, instead, we’re acting like monsters. Heavy, heavy stuff man, or so thinks Haggis, whose film has an air of laughable self-seriousness that’s compounded by its deadly obviousness. Hank’s epiphany is meant to be ours, but the writer/director so ham-fistedly conveys his points (both in terms of dialogue and dramatic situations) that the effect is akin to being lectured to by someone who read a few newspaper articles about an important topic and now figures himself a sage. Haggis’ camerawork is as reserved as Jones’ sturdy performance, yet the air of anguished mourning is pretentiousness incarnate, used to prop up the type of inelegantly conceived “mystery” in which Hank conveniently receives periodic clues from tour-of-duty cell phone video shot by Mike, and in which further superfluous tension is generated by the sexist North Country treatment suffered by his local detective sidekick Sanders (Charlize Theron, once again suppressing her beauty behind mannish clothes and a brunette dye job).
Back from Iraq, psychologically scarred grunts admit they now feel “they should just nuke it and let it all turn back to dust,” while Jason Patric’s military prick stonewalls the official police investigation and Hank’s wife (Susan Sarandon) quietly condemns her hubby for silently encouraging her two (now dead) boys to join the armed forces. It’s a deluge of military and war criticism that Haggis is virtually incapable of conveying without heavy-handed verbal or visual sermonizing. The same holds true for treatment of the titular biblical subtext, which becomes ineptly manifest when Hank tells Sanders’ son the legend of David and Goliath as a bedtime story – and then, upon leaving, arrogantly closes the bedroom door shut, so convinced is he that this simple tale has completely cured the kid of his fear of the dark. For In the Valley of Elah, the Iraq War itself is Goliath, U.S. soldiers are David, and – much to Hank’s sorrow – no longer is success simply guaranteed by fearless opposition to the enemy. Hank mourns the clear-cutness of his favorite fable but the film doesn’t, as it subscribes to simplicity all the way through to Hank’s eventual (and painfully predictable) return to the intro’s high school to hang the American flag upside down. The flag message is apt: Help!