Even the most adamantly antiwar movies about American soldiers returning from Vietnam — Hal Ashby’s Coming Home (1978) and Oliver Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July (1989) — redeemed their mangled, embittered grunts through the love of good women, devoted parents, political resistance, or all of the above. You can’t pin that kind of ending on the Iraq war, and not just because there’s no uplift in sight. For one thing, American involvement in the war has not generated enough visible political resistance to call it a movement. For another, the last few years have taught us too much about the effects of battlefield trauma on Vietnam and Iraq war veterans alike — regardless of family support — to allow us the comfort of misty-eyed rehab fantasies. Which may be why, even as tough-minded documentaries about Iraq pile up in the art houses, Hollywood continues to tiptoe around the war or shift the focus (see the upcoming, horribly jingoistic The Kingdom) from American culpability onto the terrorist Other.

What makes Paul Haggis’ In the Valley of Elah — a wildly uneven but brave foray into the dark side of posttraumatic stress disorder — unusual is its focus on parental grief, which Haggis seeks to complicate by asking, What’s the one thing that could be worse than the bottomless sorrow of losing a child who’s a war hero? After Abu Ghraib and Haditha (and My Lai, for those old enough to remember), the question is neither rhetorical nor far-fetched.

Loosely drawn from Mark Boal’s 2004 Playboy investigative piece about a soldier who was killed after going AWOL while on furlough from a stint in Iraq, In the Valley of Elah comes packaged as a feverish murder mystery groaning beneath the added thematic weight of a strained David-and-Goliath allegory. But once you peel away the conceptual ballast that doubtless got Haggis through his pitch meetings, the movie lives and breathes as a character drama, with terrific performances from Tommy Lee Jones as Hank Deerfield, the GI’s father and himself a Vietnam vet, and Charlize Theron as Detective Emily Sanders, the cop on whose beat Mike Deerfield’s body turns up in pieces. (It’s a deficit to the movie’s emotional balance that Susan Sarandon gets short shrift as Hank’s stoical wife, who’s already lost one son to the military and now must face the loss of another, putting further strain on her already frayed marriage.)

Like Clint Eastwood, for whom the part was originally written, Jones instinctively does more with less. Hank’s dead eyes and tightly reined-in suffering pull him back from caricature as a stiff-necked military man with Army discipline so thoroughly baked into his pores that even in a scuzzy motel he makes his bed with hospital corners. Did he but know it, the long shadow of Vietnam hangs over Hank, a cop and a reflexive patriot who could imagine no other life for himself or his sons than the military. As he and Sanders, an oddly competitive pair of loners, trace Mike’s grisly death back to the barracks and try to make sense of unsettling camera footage of tortured Iraqi prisoners, Hank’s ramrod cool begins to crack. Only after he takes out his rage and frustration on a Latino vet does he realize that given enough stress, anyone could snap and turn into an aggressor.

Like Haggis’ Crash, In the Valley of Elah is overcrowded by more sprawling subplots than a daytime soap. The turf wars between police and Army brass and the unnecessary symmetry of Sanders’ own flaws with Hank’s feel like padding, as does Haggis’ effort to give Sanders a less-than-heroic back story of her own. I’ve no doubt that the movie will rile as many critics as Crash did, but for all its flaws, it’s a vital and urgent American story, beautifully shot by Roger Deakins in washed-out browns and greens, counterpointed by the cold glare of hospital lighting, that evoke what the world looks like to a man whose every belief, whose every reason for being, has turned to ash. What’s more, In the Valley of Elah is a rare assumption of responsibility for what we ask our soldiers to do, and how we ignore them when they can’t, and how, as broken men, they victimize those they’re meant to protect — and themselves.

IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH | Directed by PAUL HAGGIS | Written by HAGGIS, from a story by MARK BOAL and HAGGIS | Produced by LAURENCE BECSEY, PATRICK WACHSBERGER, STEVEN SAMUELS and DARLENE CAAMANO | Released by Warner Independent Pictures | ArcLight and the Landmark

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