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‘In the Valley of Elah’ is captivating, gut-wrenching

With all the “bring-the-troops-home” and “leave-the-troops-there” talk about Iraq, the timing is good for the movie “In The Valley of Elah.” Tommy Lee Jones stars as Hank Deerfield, a former MP whose son, Mike (Jonathan Tucker), is missing his first weekend back from Iraq.

The news hits Hank and his wife Joan (Susan Sarandon) doubly hard. They have already lost their other son. While Joan can barley function with her grief, Hank sets out on a mission to find Mike. He starts with the local police department, where he runs into Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron), a self-esteem-suffering detective who coldly informs him the case belongs to the military, and she can’t help.

While Hank is canvassing the bars, girly joints and trying to find GIs who came back with Mike, he gets a call informing him that Mike’s dismembered body has been found. Who did it and why becomes the thrust of Hank’s inquiry.

Emily goes out to the crime scene because it’s in her jurisdiction, but when an officer decides it’s really on military property, everything changes. She stews about Hank’s plight, but the next night when she agrees to accompany him to the crime scene, she gains a new respect for him. Hank scours the scene like a bloodhound, pointing out leads both her comrades and the military police missed and showing her evidence that the murder was committed on city property.

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For some time Emily has been the laughing stock of the all-male department. Her colleagues think she’s the unqualified token female. Finally fed-up with the snide remarks behind her back and armed with the incompetence of their crime scene investigation, she lets loose on Chief Buchwald (Josh Brolin). She informs him of the real discoveries Hank made and that she will now be in charge of the investigation.

Annoyed at how slow the wheels of justice turn in a small town, Hank is frustrated with Emily until he begins to know her a little better. A single parent with a lot of her own baggage, Emily invites him home to meet her son David (Devin Brochu). Not having a male role model in his life, David is quickly enamored of Hank. Hearing Hank tell David the story of David and Goliath, Emily resolves to help Hank find his own son.

Evidence soon surfaces that places four of Mike’s buddies as possible suspects. Hank, Emily, and Lt. Kirklander (Jason Patric) for the military, are all at odds on how to proceed in their investigation of Specialist Gordon Bonner (Jake Mclaughlin), Specialist Ennis Long (Mehcad Brooks), Private Robert Ortiez (Victor Wolf) and Corporal Penning (Wes Chatham).

While there are some political undertones to this movie, it’s also a fast-paced and captivating drama. Screenwriter Paul Haggis (“Million Dollar Baby” ) became interested in this story after reading a magazine article. The title “In the Valley of Elah” refers to the spot in Israel as noted in the Bible (1st Samuel, chapter 17) where the battle of David and Goliath took place nearly 3,000 years ago.

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“I love the title, as odd as it is,” explains Haggis, “because it embraces a lot of what the movie talks about. King Saul sent David into the Valley of Elah to fight Goliath, armed only with five stones. I asked myself, who would do that? Who would send a young man to fight a giant? This film addresses our responsibility in sending young men and women off to war….”

The symbolism of this historical event parallels Hank and Emily’s task as they also battle impossible odds and try to discover the truth.

To me, Charlize Theron’s character drastically changes too quickly from the underdog to the leader, but Theron is a remarkable actress who easily takes the viewer along on her journeys. Still, the steamroller in this movie is Tommy Lee Jones. Like a stuffed animal with a stoic face, Jones’ expressions rarely change. Yet, his demeanor, his tone and his body language artfully convey every emotion his character is feeling - anger, regret, profound sorrow.

“In The Valley of Elah” entertains all the way through, but beware, it’s one of those movies that ends with a real sucker punch to the gut.