In the aftermath of Crash and Million Dollar Baby, it seems like everyone was looking for a bit of that Paul Haggis feeling. Thankfully, there seems to be more than enough of him to go around. He's subsequently snagged writing credits on instant classics like Casino Royale and Letters From Iwo Jima, in addition to creating a TV show (The Black Donnellys) and co-writing The Last Kiss and Flags Of Our Fathers. Now comes Haggis' directorial follow-up, In The Valley Of Elah, a mournful, politically charged character study that benefits from some of the sober gravity that director Clint Eastwood brought to Million Dollar Baby and Letters To Iwo Jima. Where Crash relentlessly pushed every conflict to a fever pitch, Elah takes its cues from Tommy Lee Jones' low-simmering lead performance as a tradition-bound man who wants very badly to believe the best about his country, its leaders, and his family, in the face of evidence to the contrary.
Jones gives a deeply internal performance as a retired military cop whose son (Jonathan Tucker) goes missing after returning from a stint in Iraq. At first, the authorities assume Tucker has simply gone AWOL, but when his body surfaces, Jones teams up with a single-mom cop (Charlize Theron) to uncover the truth about his son's death.
Through no fault of her own, Theron comes off as a too-Hollywood conception of a tough cop, and her uphill struggle to earn the respect of her sexist male colleagues and superior betrays Haggis' background in cop dramas. (The man did, after all, help create Walker, Texas Ranger.) Haggis still has a weakness for big dramatic gestures and heavy-handed symbolism, but a somber tone and Jones' tight-lipped yet moving performance nicely undercut the tendency toward Crash-style overwrought melodrama. As Jones and Theron uncover sad, sobering truths about Tucker and the war that shaped him as much as his father's old-fashioned virtues, the film builds into an unsubtle yet compelling exploration of how an entire nation of Red Staters predisposed to trust their leaders unconditionally came to question the morality and necessity of the Iraq War.