In the Valley of Elah

3 out of 5 stars

Paul Haggis’s state-of-the-nation whodunit about a retired Army lieutenant (Jones) searching for his MIA soldier son isn’t likely to sway the few and the blindly proud who still think our occupation of Iraq is justified. Nor will this angry screed, trumpeting the moral that war dehumanizes everybody who participates in it, seem like anything but preaching to the choir for politically progressive audience members. There is one thing that the movie does extraordinarily well, however, and that’s demonstrate how a truly great actor can lift up a mediocre film.

In all fairness, In the Valley of Elah is a vast improvement over Haggis’s Oscar-winning symphony of false notes, Crash (2006), even though the director-screenwriter still throws in a subplot about a female cop (Theron) fighting precinct sexism that’s pure Lifetime. Yet what Tommy Lee Jones brings to this pat denouncement of post–“Mission Accomplished” psychological breakdowns can’t be underestimated; without his mourning gravitas and muted pain, the movie might have been unwatchable. He makes the film’s silences far more eloquent than the regrettable speechifying, and turns a predictable final shot into something profound. Haggis provides the polemics, but only Jones gives the drama a ragged, heartfelt sense of poetry.


Release details

120 mins

Cast and crew

Paul Haggis
Paul Haggis
Tommy Lee Jones
Charlize Theron
Josh Brolin
Jason Patric
Susan Sarandon
James Franco
1 person listening