Paul Haggis is the man behind the film who has now come in front of the film and is making some of the most poignant films of our time. The writer/director of Crash and the writer of Million Dollar Baby has now brought us In the Valley of Elah, the story of a man investigating the murder of his son who has recently returned from a tour in Iraq.
Tommy Lee Jones plays retired Sargent Deerfield, a Vietnam Vet who had worked CID for 30 years and now hauls gravel. He is awakened by a phone call from the base telling him that his son, who has just returned, is AWOL and has 48 hours to return to the base. Suspecting foul play, Jones heads out to Fort Rudd in New Mexico to check it out. Deerfield is a study in creases. His clothes are perfect. His bed is perfect. His shoes are perfectly shined and placed next to his bed at night. His life is a carefully crafted rhythm of habits intended to create the illusion that all is right with the world. He is stoic, forthright and abrupt. Life is a puzzle to be solved, and he always has the answer.
Deerfield arrives in New Mexico to a less than warm reception from the MP and the local police detective, played by Charlize Theron trying very hard not to be pretty. When unknown remains are found near a local road and jurisdiction is volleyed between local police and the MP, things get tricky as Deerfield’s instincts kick in and he makes enemies on all sides. The remains are discovered to be those of Michael Deerfield and as the story unfolds, Deerfield begins to unravel.
Few actors can rival Morgan Freeman in the area of gravitas, but Jones gives him a run for his money in this role. He should teach a class in how to have your eyes well up without a single tear falling – ever. The downward spiral is subtle for most, but cataclysmic for a man whose life is so calculated. First, he is caught by Theron in the laundromat and is forced to wear an un-ironed, not-quite-dry shirt. Then he takes a sip of beer. Then a cigarette. Then a shot of JD. He begins to sleep later and later. The hotel bed once carefully made, now comes undone underneath the tossing and turning of his inner turmoil and it is of no interest to him.
This story is about fighting fear and defeating giants. The title of the film is a biblical reference to the valley where Goliath would come out and challenge the army of Israel to come and fight him and where he was ultimately defeated by David. What Haggis has done is take his typical style of weaving together many intersecting stories and created levels of symbol in one story. Jones’ character descends from a place of solid, protective presence to one of unhinged chaos – a clear picture of the place of the United States in the world. But who is David and who is Goliath? In this story, we are all both.
As this film is set against the current war in Iraq, we can’t help but see the obvious picture of the US as Goliath, but this film shows us both the internal and external Goliaths that loom equally large. Externally, Jones was up against the local police, the military police and his wife as he searched for what happened to his son. Internally, he was faced with his own fear, memories of his own war experience, and the knowledge that he could pinpoint the moment when his son needed him most and he wasn’t there for him.
My major takeaway from this film is that things cannot continue as they are. A particularly heartbreaking moment in the film is when Jones is cleaning out his son’s barracks and a young, still-pimpled recruit moves in to the space and Jones looks at him with abject pity for what he’s about to experience. We are in a war that has no foreseeable end, is costing us billions of dollars but is costing us more in what damage is being done to those who are returning. We are creating a generation of men and women who have witnessed unspeakable tragedies and have no way to cope except by diminishing their own humanity and that of those around them. Ironic for an ardently pro-life administration. This has got to stop. We have a power-hungry, war-mongering administration and an impotent, non-binding-resolution-drafting Congress and people are dying in droves, and not just physically. When will it end?