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Review: In The Valley Of Elah

The best American film of last year featured actors Tommy Lee Jones and Josh Brolin - but was not No Country For Old Men. Instead, it may well have been In The Valley Of Elah, which Eyewear only recently had the opportunity to view. Briefly, this is a supremely downbeat film, stoic, and lonely, about a father searching for a son - the son being a soldier just back from Iraq, and gone AWOL. Jones plays the spit-polish ex-army cop and Nam vet, with rigid solemnity - his duty is to country, and to his child.

Meanwhile, there is stuff about barely decipherable garbled digital footage captured by a mobile phone, lines not to be crossed, competing jurisdiction between civil and military investigators, and the right way to hang a flag, which provides the haunting, if overly simplistic, final symbolic image (for example, was Viet Nam really a more noble moment?). The women in the film are exemplary, if compromised, mothers - Susan Sarandon plays the wife whose two children are sacrificed to America's military culture - and Charlize Theron plays the tired, pale, single mother who also happens to be a local detective under constant mocking threat from her male (chauvinist) co-workers.

Canadian Paul Haggis directs, but it is Roger Deakins, famous for working with the Coen Bros., as cinematographer, that lends the film its gravitas - a steely, clinical, wintry tone, as if Edward Hopper's America had been put through the wash a few too many times, and been bled bone-dry of colour.

This is a detective story (in the classic way that Oedipus is said to be the daddy of all such mysteries), and Jones has some good lines, and observations (blue cars look green under yellow light) but what finally emerges is how brutalised men and women can become, once they are embedded in a state of war; how cruelty, and killing, become normal, even boring - and how America (with its roadside signs for guns, chicken, and strippers) has had its values strip mined of late, leaving precious little but an empty gut-ache wanting some idea of honour in the dust.
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