Loosely drawn from Mark Boal's 2004 Playboy investigative piece about the killing of a soldier who went AWOL while on furlough from Iraq, Paul Haggis' wildly uneven foray into the dark side of post-traumatic stress disorder focuses on parental grief, which the writer-director bravely complicates by asking what it's like for a patriot to mourn a son with a blemished record. In the Valley of Elah comes packaged as a feverish murder mystery groaning beneath too many subplots and the added weight of a strained David-and-Goliath allegory. But once you peel away the ballast, the movie lives and breathes as a character drama with terrific performances from Tommy Lee Jones as the GI's father, Hank, and Charlize Theron as the cop on whose beat the body of Hank's son turns up in pieces. The movie will rile as many critics as Crash did, but with all its flaws, it's a vital American story, beautifully shot by Roger Deakins in washed-out browns and greens that evoke what the world looks like to a man whose every reason for being has turned to ash. In the Valley of Elah is a rare assumption of responsibility for what we ask our soldiers to do, how we ignore them when they can't, and what happens next.
No consolation for Jones and Sarandon.
Opens at Meridian, Fri., Sept. 14. Rated R. 120 minutes.