Judging from the small audience at the screening of In the Valley of Elah that I attended, and its limited release -- 326 theaters -- Paul Haggis's masterpiece isn't going to be around very long. Perhaps Americans are put off by the title -- Elah is the valley where David fought Goliath -- or maybe we're not ready for such an unsparing look at the consequences of the Iraq war. But don't worry, if you don't get to see In the Valley of Elah before it closes, you'll probably get another chance early in 2008, after the Academy Award nominations are announced.
As he did for the Oscar-winning movie, Crash, Paul Haggis wrote and directed In the Valley of Elah. It's based upon the actual murder of a U.S. soldier, two days after he returned from Iraq. The movie works on three levels. As cinema, it's as near perfect as any American film we're likely to see this year. The plot is tight. The cinematography -- by Roger Deakins -- is flawless. And the acting is superb: Tommy Lee Jones, Charlize Theron, and Susan Sarandon have all won Oscars; in January, they'll undoubtedly again be nominated for an Academy Award for these performances, with Jones the favorite for best leading actor.
The movie succeeds as a police-procedural whodunit. Jones' character, Hank Deerfield, is a retired MP working as a truck driver in Tennessee. He learns his son, Mike, has returned from Iraq, but has gone AWOL from his base at Fort Rudd. The father drives to New Mexico to look into Mike's disappearance. A few days later, the boy's burned and dismembered body is discovered. Both the military and the local police dismiss the murder as a drug deal gone bad. Hank enlists the help of local police detective Emily Saunders -- Charlize Theron in the best role of an already notable career. Through a combination of skillful interrogation and dogged persistence, the duo eventually uncovers the truth about who killed Mike. (Along the way, Susan Sarandon gives a brief, convincing portrayal of his mother.)
However, In the Valley of Elah also works as a commentary on the war in Iraq. Not in the heavy-handed way that recent documentaries such as No End in Sight have done; there's none of the self-righteous tone of "we're right and they're wrong." Haggis's movie painfully examines the impact of the war on all Americans. It reminded me of Coming Home, the 1978 winner of three Academy Awards, which looked at the psychological impact of the Vietnam War. (That movie was released three years after the war in Vietnam ended; In the Valley of Elah comes to us as the Iraq war continues.)
Early in the movie, Tommy Lee Jones' character, Hank, finds his son's cell phone and remembers Mike used its camera to take pictures of Iraq. Hank hires a technician to reconstruct the videos in the phone's damaged memory -- the Iraq heat had fried the data. In parallel to the police investigation, the videos are reconstructed -- a cinematic device first used in Antonioni's classic Blow-Up.
As the videos emerge, the audience gets a chilling sense of the chaos in Iraq, amplified by statements of members of Mike's unit. In one harrowing exchange, a soldier says the best way to deal with Iraq is to "nuke it and turn it into ashes."
In the Valley of Elah is an unsparing examination of what the war is doing to America. At the beginning of the film, a woman tells Theron's character, Emily, that her husband, who has just returned from Iraq, lost his temper and drowned their dog in the bathtub. The terrified wife complains she is afraid of her husband and doesn't know what to do, as none of the authorities want to help. Emily explains she can't do anything, because the woman's husband hasn't threatened her. Near the end of the movie, Emily is called to a murder scene: the soldier has drowned his wife in their bathtub.
As Haggis's epic garners the awards it deserves, the film will be the subject of multiple interpretations. Some will say it depicts the manner in which the reality of the Iraq conflict has gradually emerged: painful images reconstructed over time until the awful truth is revealed. Others will note that the war has made savagery routine, inured the American public to random death and destruction. Many will observe that the death of Mike Deerfield and the grief of his mother and father symbolizes America's loss. All will agree that In the Valley of Elah is an earnest attempt to portray the war's consequences.
Afterward, I kept remembering the scene where the soldier's wife is found drowned in the bathtub. America was warned about the psychological and moral consequences of invading Iraq. Nonetheless, we ignored wise counsel and proceeded with the war. Now the entire nation has to face the consequences - not just the soldiers and their families. For it's our national soul that's slowly drowning as this terrible war drags on.