Loosely adopting the format of the investigative thriller, and inspired by the true story of Lanny Davis and his murdered son as reported by co-scripter Mark Boal in Playboy, Paul Haggis’s second cinematic distress flare – following his race-orientated ‘Crash’ – follows the efforts of retired soldier and ex-military policeman Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones) to determine first the whereabouts then the fate of his missing son, recently returned from a tour of duty in Iraq. It’s a thoughtful, sincere and moving film, buttressed by a fine, central performance by an actor at the top of his form but one which depends on the viewer’s indulgence in Haggis’s play with genre commitments in favour of wider psychological or even political implications.
As such, its format is closer to the cinema of moral quest – following such great exemplars as John Ford’s ‘The Searchers’ – with aspirations to discuss crises in a country at large through the self-examination of the quester in particular. Thus the most successful scenes are its most domestic and personal: watching Jones folding the sheets military-style in his grotty motel close to the army base in Fort Rudd, New Mexico to which he’s come on an instinct on the news of his son’s disappearance. Without spoiling the film’s revelations, Deerfield is soon entering a personal hell caused by institutional and national forces which he is hesitant at first to acknowledge. That Jones is playing a disciplined, undemonstrative and straight-speaking man of the old-school – ‘It’s the least, I could do,’ says a helper. ‘I’d say that’s correct’, replies Deerfield – makes the actor’s careful gradations of stress, loss and disillusionment all the more moving.
Visually, too, the film is pleasingly coherent, with cinematographer Roger Deakins giving a lonely, mournful aura to the seedy army bars, and lonely New Mexico backlots, while Haggis keeps true to the film’s domestic vision by restricting shots of foreign conflict to static-filled and scrambled images re-assembled from his son’s mobile. Less satisfying is the film’s incorporation of its female characters – despite fine performances by both Charlize Theron as a police inspector and Susan Sarandon as Deerfield’s traumatised wife – which undermine the film’s subtextual interest in what is called ‘the crisis of paternity’, a theme that runs through much of Haggis’s work.