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Vol. LXI, No. 40
Wednesday, October 3, 2007
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For more movie summaries, see Kam’s Kapsules.

I’M SORRY, BUT I’VE GOT TO FIND OUT WHAT HAPPENED: Hank, (Tommy Lee Jones, left) tries to explain to his wife (Susan Sarandon) that he is compelled to find out what has happened to their last surviving son who has been declared missing by the military authorities.

In the Valley of Elah: Fallout of Iraq War Examined in Post-Traumatic Stress Drama

When SPC Mike Deerfield (Jonathan Tucker) disappers from his unit after returning from a tour of duty in Iraq, his father Hank (Tommy Lee Jones), a retired career military man, decides to join the search. Bidding adieu to his anguished wife (Susan Sarandon), Hank drives from Tennessee to New Mexico in a panic. He is afraid of what he might find because their only other child, a Marine, had perished in a helicopter crash while serving in the 82nd Airborne.

Upon his arrival at the base, he discovers that the officer in charge of missing persons (Jason Patric) is an inept pencil-pusher. Looking for clues on his own, Hank finds himself frustrated by the uncooperative and deliberately misleading members of Mike’s unit.

Sadly, his rescue mission turns into a recovery effort after the charred body of his son, that has been chopped to pieces and scattered around an empty lot, is found. Although the military brass assumes jurisdiction and quickly declares Mike’s murder drug related in an attempt to close the case quickly, former MP Hank is savvy enough to smell a bureaucratic cover up.

Hank tries to contact the local police but they refuse to intervene in an Army affair. Fortunately, he does find one officer, Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron), in the department who is willing to help. She’s a detective who is usually assigned to inconsequential cases by her condescending sexist colleagues, however, because she is a single mother with a young son, she understands Hank’s need to know exactly who killed his son, and why.

The two team up to fill in the pieces of the puzzle, and their determined effort is meticulously chronicled in In the Valley of Elah, the first feature directed by Paul Haggis since his Oscar-winning outing in Crash. Although the film has been billed as a crime thriller, it actually is an indictment of the American invasion of Iraq, rather than a typical whodunit.

Even though Hank and Emily retrace Mike’s steps through strip clubs and other usual venues associated with the genre, revelations about Abu Ghraib-type abuses by the suspected soldiers lay the blame for the crime overseas, since post-traumatic stress disorder seems to have triggered the attack on Hank’s son. It’s hard to argue with the facts in the film, becauses they are based on a real-life incident involving a veteran named Richard Davis who was butchered and burned beyond recognition by members from his own unit after their arrival back in the States from a tour of duty in Iraq.

Aside from the annoying profusion of red herrings, this tortoise-paced picture’s only purpose seems to be to use a talented cast of Academy Award-winners to deliver an antiwar message. Susan Sarandon has been reduced here to little more than hand-wringing and putting on pained expressions, while Tommy Lee Jones reprises his trademark no nonsense, take charge persona, although he looks a little silly with nobody to order around. Finally, Charlize Theron’s pedestrian performance as a detective is so unremarkable that you wonder whether you’re really watching the same actress who gave excellent performances in Monster and other memorable films.

Fair (1.5 stars). Rated R for sexuality, nudity, profanity, violence, and disturbing content. Running time: 121 minutes. Studio: Warner Independent.

For more movie summaries, see Kam’s Kapsules.

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