Director: Paul Haggis; Release date: 25 January
Mike Deerfield (Jonathan Tucker), a young soldier fresh from Iraq, goes awol before being found dead near his military base in New Mexico. So begins a quest by his father, Hank (an incredible performance from Tommy Lee Jones), and local detective Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron), to take on the military and find out how and why his son died.
In the Valley of Elah is based on a true story, and initially isn't obviously an anti-war film, but a gripping murder mystery. You could even be forgiven for thinking that the film is in some way an apologist for the "war on terror", with liberal guilt confronted by the cold reality of war at every turn.
But this is what makes the film so incredible - it doesn't take the easy road. It takes every difficult angle over the war and puts it right up there for you to confront - the battlefield is not so black and white, with humanity liquidated into the fog of war.
Whenever news of atrocities carried out by our troops slips through the steel network of embedded journalists in the war zone, the mass media soul searches for an answer that doesn't contradict the barbarity it supports. Unlike this film, the media conglomerates would never suggest that it might be something to do with poor youngsters being forced to murder for their country's economic superiority as they see their friends blown to pieces.
While it is the politics of the film that smack you in the face, it is truly excellent in its own right. The acting is superb. Tommy Lee Jones gives an incredible performance as an emotionally savaged father dealing with his guilt after sending his two sons to war, only to see them both killed as a result.
You don't need to hear him give monologues about this guilt or about his changing opinion of war - it can all be seen on his face, in his posture, in his reluctance to talk. He becomes consumed by his mission for the truth.
Even the film quality alters as the film progresses. The images become gradually grainier as the plot thickens, blurring what was apparently so clear to the protagonists at the start. It is almost impossible to spot this technique, but it hits you. Similarly, the camera angles veer between rigid, constraining viewpoints, to wider, freer scenes as the truth gradually floods out.
This may be unexpected from writer and director Paul Haggis - his previous work includes Casino Royale and the mild mannered 1990s sitcom Due South. He is currently working on the script of the new James Bond film, but refuses to start production until the screenwriters' strike is over.
He said he wrote In the Valley of Elah following the patriotic upsurge following 9/11, something he felt compelled to challenge. "I wanted to disguise it as a murder mystery to get people into the cinema," Haggis admitted. "But people saw right through it. Didn't fool anyone. Tried. Failed."
While the film was far from being a blockbuster in the US, Haggis was happy about the success it did have. "It did best in the mid-West and South, the places sending their children to Iraq - the children of the poor."
This is the most powerful anti-war film I have seen since the 1970s allegory for the Vietnam War, Soldier Blue - which, like this, used another genre (a Western) as a platform for its commentary.
As with anything, this film has its faults: it does on occasion drop into cliché (the young police officer standing up to her misogynistic superiors was important, but seemed rather familiar), but it very rarely does this, and it is totally forgivable.
Organise a delegation from your Stop the War group to see this - I can't suggest a better big screen deconstruction of the myths of war.