The Big Valley
Even the most adamantly anti-war movies about American soldiers returning from Vietnam — Hal Ashby’s Coming Home (1978) and Oliver Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July (1989) — redeemed their mangled, embittered grunts through the love of good women, devoted parents, political resistance or all of the above. You can’t pin that kind of ending on the Iraq war, and not just because there’s no uplift in sight. Which may be why, even as tough-minded documentaries about Iraq pile up in the art houses, Hollywood continues to tiptoe around the war or shift the focus (see the upcoming, horribly jingoistic The Kingdom) from American culpability to the terrorist other.
What makes Paul Haggis’ In the Valley of Elah 8212; a wildly uneven but brave foray into the dark side of post-traumatic stress disorder — unusual is its focus on parental grief. Loosely drawn from Mark Boal’s 2004 Playboy investigative piece about a soldier who was killed after going AWOL while on furlough from a stint in Iraq, In the Valley of Elah comes packaged as a feverish murder mystery groaning beneath the added thematic weight of a strained David and Goliath allegory. But once you peel away the conceptual ballast, the movie lives and breathes as a character drama with terrific performances from Tommy Lee Jones as Hank Deerfield, the G.I.’s father and himself a Vietnam vet, and Charlize Theron as Emily Sanders, the cop on whose beat the body of Deerfield’s son turns up.
Like Haggis’ Crash, In the Valley of Elah is overcrowded by more sprawling subplots than a daytime soap. No doubt, the movie will rile as many critics as Crash did, but for all its flaws, it’s a vital and urgent American story, beautifully shot by Roger Deakins in washed-out browns and greens that evoke what the world looks like to a man whose every reason for being has turned to ash. What’s more, In the Valley of Elah is a rare assumption of responsibility for what we ask our soldiers to do; how we ignore them when they can’t; and how, as broken men, they victimize both those they’re meant to protect and themselves.