I got this film on Blu-ray but as I don't think the disc-format is the important factor when watching this film I'm including my review for the DVD as well as I'm sure the experience would be just as good.
As it was cheap and had a good review from Mark Kermode I decided to give it a try; I was not disappointed, despite the film being written/directed by Paul Haggis who's previous effort, 'Crash', I hated !
The initial plot is quite simple: an ex-military father (Tommy Lee Jones, on top-form) is contacted by the Army infantry unit of his son, who has just returned from operational duties in Iraq, and informed that he has gone missing so is therefore AWOL. This provokes the father into travelling to the Army base, meet old acquaintances and try to find out where his son is; the film is made from his viewpoint throughout.
I am being very careful to not divulge too much information to avoid spoiling things for the first-time viewer. I have read several reviews which mention more specifics of the story as though they are immediately revealed in the film, when they aren't and are actually important plot developments; what I have stated above is as basic as it gets for starters.
As the mystery develops we soon see the father become involved in a far-reaching set of issues surrounding the initial disappearance of his son, which rapidly progresses to involve the police (mainly a detective, played magnificently by Charlize Theron - through her performances she's slowly proving that she is not just a pretty face !) and Army officialdom far more than might be expected as matters get quite sinister....
Several plot developments suggest not everything is quite as it initially seemed and a lot of assumptions made by investigators (and the father) are proved to be incorrect; the father becomes embroiled in a situation where liaisons are 'poisoned' by bad relations between the civil and Army police. Encompassing the entire film is the nagging reminder of what the son was recently involved in whilst in Iraq and many 'flashbacks' are injected courtesy of mobile phone footage taken by the son (gleaned for the father from the phone after he steals it when visiting the son's vacant accommodation).
As the story unfolds further we are presented with a host of occurrences where racism, prejudice and a general indifference to human life are rife; these incidents ultimately lead to the father discovering the shocking truth about what precisely happened to his son and, more importantly, why. Nobody is perfect in this film, including the father who we initially see as the unfortunate victim, and all those unpleasant traits are shown to be held by more people than we expect....
Once the film reaches its dramatic conclusion it is clear that the overall storyline is essentially a 'vehicle' to expose and highlight how bad things are in the environment the film depicts. As the presentation isn't overly dramatic and is almost documentary-like in style it is easy to believe everything that is seen and heard; for that reason I don't think the US Army or police would have been too happy with the way things were portrayed as the film does not show them in a good light.
It is important to realise that the details of the 'mystery' are presented to the viewer as they are revealed to the father, so we are just as clueless as he is - meaning we experience the thoughts and emotions he does at exactly the same time. Aside from the powerful and believable screenplay the most significant factor which makes this film succeed is Tommy Lee Jones; his performance is superb and he depicts those emotions and depressed confusion beautifully.
The structure of the film is excellent and the manner of the plot revelations are executed very well; this is a slow-burning, gripping and powerful mystery/drama with a cast that succeeds in making everything believable. The production-values are also very good.
If you enjoy dramatic films where good acting and a detailed, multi-layered plot are the main ingredients you really should watch 'In The Valley of Elah' as you will be in for a treat.
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