Is there an actor working today who conveys a more mythically American presence than Tommy Lee Jones? His endlessly fascinating face unites opposites in our national character, making him both suave and brutal, calculating and homespun. He’s tough, but smart too (that Harvard education!), and while his characters generally play on the side of the angels, they don’t hesitate to get their hands dirty. Like Clint Eastwood, Jones is an avatar of gunslinger American manliness. Sure, he’s smiling, but you know what he could do to you if he let himself; and he knows you know. His steely, taunting grin hints at latent violence and a malicious pleasure in his own lethality.
In writer-director Paul Haggis’s In the Valley of Elah, that confident grin is gone, replaced by a harrowed visage of loss. Jones plays a retired military policeman named Hank Deerfield, whose two sons worshiped him and followed him into the military, with grievous results. At the film’s outset, Deerfield has already lost one to a helicopter training accident; and when he and his wife (Susan Sarandon) receive word their other son has gone AWOL while back from a tour of duty in Iraq, Deerfield drives out to a New Mexico Army base to untangle the mystery-which soon takes a gruesome turn when his son’s body is discovered, hacked and burned beyond recognition, in a field near the base.
In the Valley of Elah is nominally a police procedural, with...
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About the Author
Rand Richards Cooper, one of Commonweal's film critics, is the author of two works of fiction, The Last To Go and Big as Life.