At roughly 15-minute intervals during In the Valley of Elah, director Paul Haggis points the camera at the eyes of Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones) and nearly blinds his audience. Hank's hardships rip worry lines into his face with such ferocity that he becomes hard to look at. When he bows his head to pray, you can't help but feel relief that the poor guy at least talks to someone.
Hank is a Tennessee native and a Vietnam veteran with that same thick accent that Hollywood attributes to everyone who's ever been to church. What's surprising about the film is how much director Haggis seems to like Hank. When Hank prays, the child at the table next to him copies his movements. When Hank sees the American flag flown upside-down by an El Salvadoran immigrant who doesn't know any better, we cringe with him.
Hank is on his way from Tennessee to find his son Mike, recently gone AWOL from an Army base in New Mexico. After Mike's charred remains are found outside the base, Hank, a retired MP, acts as a private investigator. Like so many great detectives, Hank is one of the walking wounded, with his son's death driving him. The scenes in which Hank inspects his son's body and old hangouts, which include several strip clubs, earn the film its R rating for violence, language, and nudity.
The secret behind Mike's murder is both unexpected and harder to hear than any of the theories that the movie puts forth as red herrings. Haggis clearly hates the Iraq War and uses a Bible story as the central metaphor (David and Goliath fought in the Valley of Elah) in his dissent to it.