But third, like Haggis' Oscar-grabbing Crash, In the Valley of Elah is another overheated melodrama by a director/writer whose work is best suited to the small screen, where small ideas, all dressed up, play better. This time, Haggis turns down the heat considerably, playing out his story ("inspired by true events") with touches that construct his clichés more subtly. In the end, though, his movie muddles its message. It's an anti-this-war film that teaches fatherless children to arm themselves and fight evil giants, which are not real.
The drama concerns Sgt. Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones), a long-retired military-police investigator who lost his older son to exercises at Fort Bragg. Now his younger son is home from Iraq, and he's apparently AWOL. Before long they find his dead body, which has been stabbed, burned, chopped into pieces, and then eaten by scavengers in the field where the killers left it.
The question now is whodunit, and who will investigate. The military and the local cops squabble over jurisdiction, but Hank's ace detective-work lands the case in the plucky lap of Emily Saunders (Charlize Theron), the single mother of a timid young son whose male police colleagues treat her like dirt and who assert (not even imply) that she slept her way into her job.
After numerous collisions, the truth comes out (can we handle the truth?), and of course, everyone's good and everyone's bad. Along the way we get a bitter dose of our current reality: Iraq is an insane bloodbath, the military will not look after its own, and old soldiers never die, just their sons do.
Haggis probably didn't mean to mix his ideologies in titling his movie after the place where David slew Goliath. Hank tells Emily's son the story of that great mythic battle -- which Hank believes actually happened -- after which the boy wants a slingshot. To make this a more challenging drama, Emily should have been angry at Hank for making her son want to be a soldier. Instead, she tells him about the boy's request with a chuckle, then adds, "At least he doesn't want a BB gun." Give him time.
Scene by scene, In the Valley of Elah tries awfully hard to be weighty. The characters don't talk politics, although in the background, on the radio, President Bush tells us the war is going well, while the images on the nightly news tell us the truth. Haggis tries to weave a tight fabric of conflicting emotions and motives, but in the end his movie is more like needlepoint: He's working from a pattern, and when he finally gets all of the threads in place, the finished work looks pretty much like you imagined it would. He writes and directs with carefully measured effect and an obvious subtlety.
"Both of my boys, Hank!" his wife (Susan Sarandon), a patient mater dolorosa, wails at him. "You could have left me one." She holds him, and his code of manhood, responsible for their enlistment. That's both true and harsh, for if Haggis had made a broader movie, he could have shown us that it's as much cultural as familial, even when you have a father who runs a pair of pants along the edge of a table to make the creases crisper.
The acting varies, with Theron sometimes effective but usually outweighed. Only Jones is outstanding, and his pouty scowl and sunken eyes become the mask behind which he hides every known human emotion, just as he was trained to do. A realistic story about this soldier's heart might not sell as many tickets, but it would certainly be a more satisfying way to explore the consequences of a culture that admires bravery even -- or especially -- in the face of, shall we say, The Horror.
Starts Fri., Sept. 21.