In The Valley of Elah is Paul Haggis's first film since Crash. If you liked Crash, then you'll love this. If you thought that Crash was overrated and overblown, well: a) join the club; and b) this is an improvement. But it's still infected by the director's smugness and holier-than-thou politicising. As experiences go, it's not so much cinematic, more Speaker's Corner. That's better than Crash, of course, which was like being cornered by a liberal organic broccoli farmer at boring dinner party, but it's still not exactly what you'd call a desirable situation.
The focus of the story is Sergeant Deerfield (Jones), a retired military policeman, whose son Jonathan has gone AWOL after returning from a tour of duty in Iraq. Trying to get to the bottom of this uncharacteristic disappearance, Deerfield travels to his son's New Mexico base only to discover a terrible truth: his son survived Iraq only to be brutally murdered on US soil. As Deerfield probes further, pushing against the army's officially closed doors with the help of a sympathetic local detective (Theron), the facts slowly drip through, revealing a cover-up and a terrible incident in Iraq.
Of course, this being a Haggis movie, the implications of the murder are given obvious — painfully obvious — parallels with the Allied invasion of Iraq and the immorality of war. Yes, they're valid points, yes, Haggis is entitled to an opinion, but the clunking dialogue only just stops short of declaring 'war is hell' in so many words.
It's to Jones' eternal credit then that he can take his cipher of a character and give it real life. The slow erosion of Deerfield's conviction in military right is extremely moving, and Jones deserves every plaudit coming his way. When you pair this role with his (even better) performance in No Country For Old Men, this really should be his year for the Best Actor Oscar but, unfortunately, there's little to balance this towering turn as Theron is underused while Sarandon is virtually ignored. Combine that with the Haggis soapbox preaching and his frankly pedestrian direction, and the film can only suffer as a result.