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After 'Crash,' directory explores Iraq war's emotional wreckage

Tommy Lee Jones stars as a father and Army veteran who travels to New Mexico to investigate the whereabouts of his missing son, a soldier back from Iraq, and Charlize Theron plays a detective on the case in 'In the Valley of Elah.' Tommy Lee Jones stars as a father and Army veteran who travels to New Mexico to investigate the whereabouts of his missing son, a soldier back from Iraq, and Charlize Theron plays a detective on the case in "In the Valley of Elah." (lorey sebastian/warner independent pictures)

For his first movie since "Crash," Paul Haggis switches from the problem of racism to the problem of Iraq. The war is a better fit. None of the exasperating guilt on display in "Crash" has made it into "In the Valley of Elah," a solidly made genre movie: the Army mystery.

Mike Deerfield (Jonathan Tucker), a young soldier, returns from a tour in Iraq and is declared AWOL after his first weekend on base in New Mexico. The boy's father, Hank (Tommy Lee Jones), takes the phone call and decides to drive over from Tennessee to get some answers. Hank is a former Army man himself and has already lost one son in combat. The idea of losing a second is too much for his wife, played by an underused Susan Sarandon.

Hank involves himself in the investigation, dropping by the base and talking to the men in his son's unit. The missing-persons case becomes a turf skirmish between local detectives and the military police. Charlize Theron shows up as Emily Sanders, the lead detective, and she appears to have had the job for about 10 minutes.

When we meet her, a gang of male co-workers is giving her a hard time while she deals with a possible abuse case. It's as though Theron came straight from the chauvinist climes of "North Country" to the ones in this movie. The woman she's playing in "Elah," though, doesn't actually always know what she's doing. Hank often shows Emily what she's missed at the crime scene, and those scenes between Jones and Theron are deftly played. Hank is wiser and, in most matters forensic, smarter than Emily, but she doesn't cede her authority. She simply learns from her mistakes.

The politics of this investigation - the lady detective having to fight against all these men, including her boss (Josh Brolin) and a stubborn Army lieutenant (Jason Patric) - threaten to push things off their path into a different movie. Hank hires a tech wizard (Rick Gonzalez) to hack into Mike's phone and retrieve video footage he took in Iraq. The hacker can't clean up the files all at once, so he e-mails them to Hank one by one.

The descrambled footage becomes a story unto itself. But it's also an aggravating device meant to stand in for the flashbacks that, interestingly, Haggis doesn't use. When Mike's fellow soldiers tell Hank and Emily stories about their AWOL comrade, Haggis could have used the opportunity to show the events but the camera lingers on the faces of the actors, which is a shrewd choice since the film is ultimately a study of military character and military culture. (Wes Chatham, Mehcad Brooks, Victor Wolf, and Jake McLaughlin are striking in the soldiers' parts, especially McLaughlin.)

Yet as you might expect from the man who brought us "Crash," Haggis overreaches. The explanation of the biblical title (it's where David slew Goliath) didn't enrich my appreciation of his parable-deployment skills. Neither did Haggis's attempt to extrapolate a larger indictment about the damage done to this country as a result of this war courtesy of a shot of the American flag being flown upside down as a distress signal.

It's the small moments that say everything in this movie. Haggis just doesn't trust them enough, even though they're damning. As the facts come to light, it seems Hank didn't really know his son. He more or less gave his boy to the Army and no longer recognizes the damaged young man Mike has become or the deranging military culture that produced him and his peers.

If the camera never left Jones, the movie would be some kind of masterpiece. It doesn't look like he's doing anything more than playing another grizzled know-it-all. But he lends soul to this character's stoicism. It's extremely affecting watching a man discover that the heart he thought dried up long ago can still break. That upside-down flag is right there in Jones's face.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com. For more on movies, go to boston.com/movie nation.

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In the Valley of Elah

Written and directed by: Paul Haggis

Starring: Tommy Lee Jones, Charlize Theron, Jason Patric, and Susan Sarandon

At: Kendall Square, Cambridge

Running time: 123 minutes

Rated: R (violent and disturbing content, language and some sexuality/nudity)

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