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'Valley of Elah' a Drama of Post-War Trauma

In the Valley of Elah may sound like a film about a picturesque spot, but it isn't.

Everyone has the glum look of individuals bringing a Very Important Message to the world. And while the film does have something crucial to convey, this is not the way to go about it.

Tommy Lee Jones plays a retired M.P., a former Army lifer with impressive investigative skills. When he finds out that his son, newly returned from Iraq, has gone AWOL from his base in New Mexico, he heads out to the territories to find his boy.

But the Army stonewalls him, as does a local police detective, played by Charlize Theron.

Elah is director Paul Haggis' follow-up to the Oscar-winning Crash.

It's an honorable, earnest film that deals with a subject not usually touched on by Hollywood: the pernicious effect war has on the young people we send to fight.

But, paradoxically, the film's sense of responsibility is almost paralyzing. The production is overwhelmed by the seriousness of what it's attempting.

Almost all of the elements of Elah, including lethargic performances from Jones and Theron, combine to leech out whatever vigor the film might have.

Everything in Valley of Elah takes too long to play out. And while the film likes the thought of Jones and Theron as an investigative odd couple, they come off as no more than Grim and Grimmer, too mournful a team to make any kind of emotional connection.

If you want to see where In the Valley of Elah might have been stronger, take a look at the highly adrenalized The Bourne Ultimatum still in theaters.

Both films explore propaganda about doing "what it takes to save American lives" and the effect it has on individual soldiers.

Admittedly, In The Valley of Elah is a very different kind of film, but it could have used some of Bourne's life force in spreading its critical message.

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Kenneth Turan is the film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Morning Edition, as well as the director of the Los Angeles Times Book Prizes. He has been a staff writer for the Washington Post and TV Guide, and served as the Times' book review editor.
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