Tommy Lee Jones delivers an outstanding performance as a father searching for his missing son in the movie In the Valley of Elah. I was pulled into the mystery of what happened to Hank Deerfield’s son from that first phone call at the beginning of the movie. As a father myself, I’ve occasionally wondered how my grown children were and if they were all right. With the Iraq War going on and so many soldiers over there, that phone call from the military is the last thing any of them want to deal with.
As it turns out, Deerfield’s son Michael is AWOL, away without leave. The military is looking for him. Deerfield says that if his son was in the United States, he would have known about it.
The calm, cool, collected way the movie goes about introducing the characters and the problem in the opening minutes of the film are amazing. Everything is understated. Jones shows his concern through his actions, quiet and controlled, rather than with further dialogue with anyone. Susan Sarandon portrays Deerfield’s wife, and their relationship’s depth and emotional complexity is played out in a few short scenes and sparse, meaningful dialogue that never overstates the worry. You can see it in the characters, and that’s the best way on film.
From the beginning, Deerfield comes across as Joe American. He stops on the way out of town to help a school janitor to properly display the American flag. His simple gesture, in the presence of his own crisis, really touched me. And the movie continues to do that all the way through.
At Fort Rudd, the viewer learns that Deerfield isn’t just an ex-military guy. He's former Army CID, part of the criminal investigation division. That caught my attention immediately and amped up the interest. Deerfield wasn’t going to be easily taken advantage of. You can almost feel the storm looming on the horizon.
I was thoroughly irritated at how quickly the military blows off Deerfield’s concern. However, I can see how this can sometimes be the case. Still, Deerfield is slyer than anyone thinks, and quickly manages to get his son’s cell phone from his things when the sergeant isn’t looking.
I enjoyed how Deerfield, though at least fifteen years away from his past as CID and technologically challenged, picks up the reins of his own investigation so quickly. Everything starts falling back into place for him, and his insight into the military mind is great to watch, especially after the interaction with the local police begins.
Charlize Theron enters the story when Deerfield goes to the police for help. She plays Emily Sanders, the only female detective on the squad, and takes a lot of crap about her gender and her relationship with their boss. She’s a single mom trying to find her way, and the last thing she needs is to get tied up with Deerfield’s problems — especially with the US Army waiting to shut the investigation down at any moment.
The movie takes some surprising twists and turns along the way to the resolution of Michael’s disappearance and who was actually involved. I loved the way Deerfield breaks his “cover” as a quiet, concerned father and becomes a crusading investigator, and I also feared for him when he lost control and endangered the case and their pursuit of the truth.
Throughout the film, no one ever loses sight of the characters. As much time is given to the development of the characters as to the development of the investigation. Deerfield’s character is great, and Jones plays him to a T. There’s one scene in the laundry where Deerfield is washing his clothes that my wife didn’t understand. Deerfield was sitting in his undershirt waiting for his clothes to dry and spots Emily coming to talk to him. He hurriedly gets up and pulls a wet shirt out of the dryer and puts it on. I had to explain to my wife that Deerfield is the kind of man who wouldn’t allow himself to be seen in his undershirt by a woman not his wife.