Coming back from war, many soldiers are diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It is caused by extreme psychological trauma and, on returning, stateside soldiers coming back from war zones realize they cannot let go of some of the things they did. In Paul Haggis’ newest film, “In The Valley of Elah,” retired Army sergeant Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones) goes searching for his son Mike (Jonathan Tucker), who has gone AWOL after returning from Iraq.
Hank, a Vietnam veteran who also suffers from PTSD, understands the thoughts and feelings going on inside his son’s head. Shortly into the film, Hank learns his son has been murdered and decides to conduct his own investigation. This does not go over well with Detective Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron), but she ends up being sympathetic to Hank and allows him to join the investigation.
Jones does an admirable job portraying a father who has lost his son. He plays the role with such minimalism that when he does get angry the viewer feels his pain. At one point in the film, Hank’s wife Joan (Susan Sarandon) explains to him that their son could never feel like a man around Hank, and Jones’ reaction to this is one of the best moments in the film. His facial expressions are subtle yet powerful.
Though her role is essentially limited to Hank’s sidekick, Theron also manages to put forth a fairly solid performance. She has a few good moments, but mostly acts as the voice of reason and authority. Theron plays the role with sympathy, which balances Jones’ lack of emotion. She goes out of her way to arrange for local police to handle Mike’s murder instead of Army investigators, but when she asks Hank to read her son a bedtime story as a favor, he unenthusiastically sits by the bed flipping the pages.
Sarandon’s role in the film was fruitless. She appeared in a few very short scenes, and she failed to ignite a spark in any of them. She plays a mother suffering from the loss of a child, yet her performance lacked the sorrow and anger one would expect from it. The role itself was less than meaty from the start, and Sarandon did the bare minimum to make her character believable.
PTSD is a pertinent issue in contemporary culture, and the film’s actors effectively manage to shine a brighter light on the illness. Part of what makes Jones’ performance so powerful is that he underplays Hank’s illness by adding softness and subtlety. In one moment, Jones is able to discuss his son’s death and illness without breaking down into tears. This light scene is much heavier than it seems on the outside. Hank is able to question his son’s Army buddies but remains calm while he realizes they are lying to his face. He does the unexpected by not forcing them to speak about what occurred in Iraq. Jones powerfully portrays a father who struggles to understand what his son’s unit went through while giving them enough space to deal with the tragedy themselves.
“In the Valley of Elah” was written and directed by Paul Haggis.
It received three out of four stars.