In the Valley of Elah (15)

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Paul Haggis's In the Valley of Elah explores the consequences of a tough patrimony, which is all the more desolate for being nobly intended. It has a quite towering performance at its centre. Tommy Lee Jones, his face as iconically craggy as Clint's, plays a Vietnam vet and former military policeman, Hank Deerfield, whose son, recently returned from duty in Iraq, has gone missing.

Hank drives down to the military base in New Mexico where his son was stationed, interviews members of his unit and tries to make sense of his disappearance. Once the truth begins to emerge he is given belated help by a harassed police detective (Charlize Theron). "It's the least I can do," she says. "I'd say that's accurate," he replies.

What begins as a mystery story turns out to be an oblique yet damning investigation of the Iraq War. That obliqueness is very deliberate; Hank has palmed his son's camera phone and turned it over to a hacker, who gradually pieces together fragments of film that the boy had shot while on duty. Their meaning becomes horrifically apparent.

The formal daring of the drama, however, is to filter it almost entirely through the baffled father. Hank, a ramrod-straight patriot to begin with, slowly bends under the pressure of his discoveries, and a phone call home to his wife (Susan Sarandon) lays out with appalling clarity just what his ambition for his children has cost them.

At times it seems that Jones is hardly acting at all; his military bearing and economy of words carry the story of his career service, but it's in the fleeting twitch of a facial muscle and the sorrowful flicker of his eyes that we read what's happened to his soul. Sometimes there is nothing more moving than pain held in check by reticence, and nobody does that better than Jones.

Ironically, the one time he does talk at length we sense a terrible moral kickback lying in wait. Asked for a bedtime story by Theron's young son, Hank tells him the legend of David and Goliath who fought in the Valley of Elah and impresses the kid so deeply that he later asks his mom for a slingshot. It seems there is no age too tender to begin stirring the bellicose instincts of America's young.