In career Army officer Hank Deerfield's worldview, the American military exists to bring order to the world, and honor and dignity to every one of its soldiers. As played by Tommy Lee Jones, in a layered performance that will haunt the viewer long after the film is over, Deerfield wears the Army life like he does his standard-issue white T-shirts--unconsciously making a cheap motel bed with crisp inspection-ready corners. Yet if war is hell, the purgatory for the relatives of damaged soldiers can cause far more anguish, and Paul Haggis' quietly devastating In the Valley of Elah tells this story through Deerfield, who is desperately trying to piece together the fate of his adored son Mike, a soldier in Iraq.
Mike's company has returned from duty, but he is missing; Hank flies from Tennessee to Fort Rudd in the Southwest, to conduct his own investigation into the disappearance. There he meets a smart but put-upon police officer (Charlize Theron, glammed-down but still showing a bit too much sexy collarbone for a cop) who also smells something off in the Army's official story of the disappearance. The two form an unlikely team, but as a friend tells Deerfield early on, "You gotta trust somebody sometime, Hank," and Mike's vanishing is Hank's tipping point.
As Hank pieces together the horrifying story of Mike's fate, the incremental pain becomes etched in Jones' ragged features, and the camera captures all of it--far more powerfully than could a million words of reportage from the front lines. Theron's performance is also strong, and Susan Sarandon is moving if underutilized as Hank's grief-stricken wife, robbed of the simple nuclear family life she so wanted. "They shouldn't send heroes to places like Iraq," says one of Mike's buddies late in the film, and it's the viewers' collective sorrow--and the film's great achievement--to feel that at the deepest human level. --A.T. Hurley