War Drama Stabs at Iraq’s Unseen Flanks

    They shouldn’t send heroes to places like Iraq,” says one soldier in “Valley of Elah,” another quasi-true story about the wartime experience. But the latest vehicle for Oscar-winning director Paul Haggis (“Crash”) moves a cut above the rest, weaving together the best thematic shards of the perennial soldier’s tale. The product is a heartbreaking understanding of not only soldiers in combat, but the bleak life that follows their time in the service.
    Haggis, Hollywood’s new golden-boy scribe, picked a curious choice as lead; the weathered Tommy Lee Jones doesn’t seem enticing at first glance. Consider the preceding pool of actors that have taken on similar, albeit shinier, military personas, and Jones’ sagging jowls seem even less appealing.
    But Haggis isn’t aiming to sanctify war in the same way that Denzel Washington’s natural grace added prettier, nobler sides to “Courage Under Fire.” Instead, Haggis attacks war through the entry-level angles: it’s the soldier’s experience that is usually the dirtiest.
    If Haggis’ everyman approach is meant to highlight a grander theme, he succeeds — in oozing, deliberate fashion. The film’s hardened characters seem accustomed to war being eternally unforgiving; “Elah” bears just as heavily on its veterans as today’s government. With this in mind, Haggis wrenches our un-battle-tested guts a little harder — soldiers learn to stomach the furthest, darkest reaches of humanity, ones that leave the typical filmgoer aghast.
    Haggis’ war is an apparitional monster, fouling every scrap of life it touches and reaching past every limit of time and space. The camera never even sets foot in Iraq — we only get glimpses of the war through stunted flashbacks and almost incomprehensible video, transmitted in piecemeal through a cell phone cam. Some scenes buzz with ambient CNN noise, President George W. Bush’s voice trumpeting the now-ironic calls of sure victory.
    “Elah” follows Hank Deerfield, a military father searching a small town for Mike Deerfield, one of his army brats gone AWOL. Mike’s gruesome murder — and the ensuing military cover-ups and hush-ups — spur Jones’ super-cop into a self-motivated investigation of the crime.
    Jones gives the film a heartbreaking, defeated paternalism, driving the piercing tragedy of father-burying-son even deeper. In Hank, Haggis has reignited his penchant for the wearied character model; the last for whom we felt that off-center love was Clint Eastwood in the Haggis-penned “Million Dollar Baby.” But unlike in “Baby,” Jones carries the load of scenes and dialogue, giving less warm jawing between characters. Hilary Swank and Eastwood formed the underdog pair of the year, full of a leathery tenderness that made its finale overwhelmingly heart-wrenching, but satisfyingly poignant. In “Elah,” there is no warmth, only a void filled with regret and mourning.
    That dark place is familiar to much of the film’s meaty cast that shines in almost all angles: Jason Patric manages to face-off with both the frosty Jones and a quick-lipped Charlize Theron, playing a pushy small-town cop. Josh Brolin adds more color as the town’s police brass. But the heavy lifting comes from Jones and Susan Sarandon, playing Hank’s curt wife Joan.
    The prospect of wartime death and torment doesn’t faze the Deerfield family — Hank himself has all the edgy trappings we’d expect in a hard-edged veteran. Joan’s banter with her husband is stunted; their conversations sway between dull and indifferent, but Sarandon commands her role. She properly plays Jones’ better -half, just as rugged and worn down by life, but with a woman’s softness in motive.
    To pull the oft-closeted emotions (rage, vengeance, etc.) from his hardened characters, Haggis lobs them dismemberment, corpse-torching, torture and the like, then asks the vital question: What impact does war really have on the soul? Haggis drags us kicking and screaming into black, psychologically decaying holes we’d never dare visit.

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