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Sunday, December 28, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 32.0° F  A Few Clouds
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Mourning in America
In the Valley of Elah calculates the Iraq War's toll
on
The movie's sadness seeps into our bones.
The movie's sadness seeps into our bones.

Tommy Lee Jones puts his beef-jerky face to good use in Paul Haggis' In the Valley of Elah. He plays a retired Army sergeant who tries to figure out what happened to his son, an infantryman back from Iraq whose charred, mutilated, multiply-stabbed body was found in a field. Some fathers would break down and cry. Jones' Hank Deerfield, a former MP, pours his grief into the murder investigation, the saddlebags under his eyes too dried up to hold tears. Yes, it's another beautifully calibrated withholding act from this wily actor, who knows we'll fill in the blanks of his dead-man stare.

Haggis, who pummeled us with meaning in Crash, pulls back this time, allows the movie's sadness to seep into our bones. And he keeps the various relationships from gelling, holds everybody at a distance. Charlize Theron, now a brunette, is surprisingly effective as a single-mom rookie detective who gets caught in a jurisdictional dispute with the army, which would prefer the whole thing went away. And Susan Sarandon, in a few brief scenes, suggests what over 3,000 other American mothers have gone through in the last four years. But it's Jones who communicates the toll this war has taken. He doesn't say much, but it's all there in his eyes.

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