Jones is the Manhunter
War changes men. That is a theme which is not an uncommon one in cinema especially over the last decade as film makers have used the war in Iraq as the basis for their drama. On one hand "In the Valley of Elah" is another one of these movies as the story takes us on a path of discovery as we learn about how men who have just returned from active duty in Iraq have been affected. But there is more to it than just that as we also get to see how the effect of war is different now to how it was as as we follow a patriotic former soldier, a military man through and through. And making this work as entertainment we have a story about a soldier going AWOL and the hunt for the truth.
Out of the blue retired military investigator Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones - No Country for Old Men) recieves a call to tell him that his son Mike, having just returned from a tour of duty in Iraq has gone AWOL. Heading down to Fort Rudd to try and make sense of why his son would go AWOL things take a turn for the worse when Mike's charred and mutilated body is found by a highway. With tenacious Det. Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron - The Italian Job) Hank tries to get to the bottom of why Mike would be murdered in such a brutal manner and finding their investigation blocked by the military. But as Hank and Emily unravel what happened Hank's proud patriotic views are put to the test.
There are basically 3 things going on in "In the Valley of Elah" and they lead nicely on from each other. The start of all this is Hank heading to Fort Rudd to try and find his missing son and then dealing with then trying to find his son's murderer. It is sort of familiar territory for actor Tommy Lee Jones as yet again we have him doing detective work to solve a crime and showing his superior knowledge in reading the clues. But it is not "The Fugitive" style of crime solving but a quieter, more restrained element of a man needing answers rather than justice.
Now with this being a movie about a soldier and a crime we have the stereotypical aspect of cover up, you know the sort of thing as Hank and Emily find their attempts to speak to soldiers is blocked as they try and protect their own. But what is interesting about this it is not about protecting a soldier but protecting the fact that the men who return from active duty have changed. Now again this is typical because there have been numerous movies about how war changes men, what they see haunting them and skewing their moral compass but it is done in such a dry manner that it feels less sensational.
But this then leads to the third element of the movie and Hank's own personal journey, a patriot who did his duty and is proud of Mike for doing the same. As Hank investigates he discovers that the army is a very different place, a brutal place alien to what he remembers. And we watch as the story progresses Hank slowly change, he is still a proud American but one who has let go of certain elements of military life he held dear.
Now originally Clint Eastwood was wanted for the role of Hank but he turned it down and suggested Tommy Lee Jones instead and whilst a huge fan of Eastwood I have to say it is Jones who makes this movie work. Every ounce of his performance is real, the almost confusion at seeing how much the miliatry has changed, the frustration of finding paths blocked and that slow erosion of his belief in the military way. But Jones has a good supporting cast with Charlize Theron doing a good job as a female detective dealing with sexism and lack of respect in the work place.
What this all boils down to is that "In the Valley of Elah" is a surprisingly good movie which provides a new twist on the familiar theme of war changing soldiers. It is quiet, it is slow but it is also compelling thanks to another brilliant performance from Tommy Lee Jones.