Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones) has just told his wife Joan (Susan Sarandon), over the phone, that their only son has been found dead in a field. She wants to come to New Mexico to see the remains, he wants her to stay in Tennessee (he knows by now that what's left of their boy isn't something that would give her any sort of comfort). He asks her to trust him, and she hurls that word "trust" right back, reminding him that she "trusted" their son would not die as he followed his dad's path into the military. All of this is shot in completely unexceptional close-ups, crosscutting as dramatic phone conversations do in the movies. Then Joan slams the phone down and the scene cuts to a shot pointing directly down on her head: we find that she has been sitting on the floor against a wall, the end table with the phone receive knocked over, and small cellophane-wrapped balls that appear to be from a candy dish scattered all around her feet. The shot holds for a few seconds, and it takes us most of that time to realise that we're seeing the aftermath of whatever emotional explosion happened when Hank told her the news.

I quote this moment from early in the second act of Paul Haggis's In the Valley of Elah at such length because I think it is very important: if not to the overall scope of the movie, then certainly to the development of the director's art. After the slack-jawed bombast of Crash, Haggis is beginning to learn subtlety.

Think about it: an Oscar-winning actress gets a scene in which she learns her only living child has been murdered. The director of Crash, working in obvious Oscarbait mode, surely goes for the Big Moment. But the director of In the Valley of Elah only shows the relatively quiet fallout, and he films it as vaguely as he possibly can, and this makes it far more upsetting; for it makes us imagine the mother's torment for ourselves.

Such moments do not abound in the movie, but it is the case that this is altogether a much more delicate work than most of us Crash-haters were hoping for. The story follows Hank's journey to Fort Rudd for the first week or so of November, 2004 - the run-up to the election, that is - when he receives word that his son Mike, newly returned from an 18-month stint in Iraq, has gone AWOL. In New Mexico, Hank wanders about looking for clues, finding not much of anything, when the local police find a dismembered, burned body off the side of a country highway.

There are three levels for the plot to work on, and it does so consistently throughout the film: first, it is a procedural, and a really bleak one at that; second, it is a story of a father who is filled with guilt over leading his son on the path that led ultimately to his death; third, it is a study of how difficult it can be for men in war, particularly such a grueling and pointless war as the Iraq occupation, to reacquaint themselves with normal human society once they leave the battlefield. All of these strands run throughout the film, and while it is not always clear in the moment what any given incident means, by the end we find that there is a perfectly coherent arc that ties all of the individual scenes into one great whole. I would like to say that this is therefore a film that rewards those who pay close attention, but that's not quite true: anything that's really important gets repeated at least once, and we are generally watching the dots get connected more than we are connecting them ourselves.

Not to mention, there's not a whole lot in that schematic that isn't specifically called out in dialogue, which is direct and heavy-handed after the writer's manner (I am still sad that I once thought Million Dollar Baby was the work of a top-notch writer, although to be fair I haven't had the guts to watch it since Crash). For example the reason that I can be so sure that the film is in part about Hank's guilt is because at one point his wife says (I paraphrase): "He went in the army because you wanted it," and at one point another character says "You don't have to feel guilty. Your son knew you loved him."

The script is workmanlike, but not a failure, and there are two very significant reasons that the film works above and beyond what Haggis-the-writer does well or poorly. The first of those is the acting: not Sarandon, who gets hardly any screentime, nor Charlize Theron, who gets much screentime as the civilian police detective investigating Mike's death but shuffles around with less vitality than I have ever seen her put into a performance ever. I refer to the significant cast of semi- and unknown actors playing Mike's squad, all of them perfect little studies of damaged, unguarded masculinity. And I really, really refer to Jones as Hank, one of the great underused actors playing a role that fits him as well as any role in his career ever has. For a prestige picture by a notoriously word-happy auteur, In the Valley of Elah has one of the most silent protagonists in any modern Hollywood film I can name. Hank spends most of the film sitting and looking around and thinking, and Jones takes those three actions and turns them into a heartbreaking figure who spends the entire film pretending he doesn't feel anything, and at every single moment being betrayed by the depths of infinite sadness in his eyes. There's something about men with deeply lined faces that gives them a natural fatigued sorrow, and Jones has an ability practically unmatched in his cohort for conveying emotion solely through the position of his brow. He is not perhaps at his career peak here, but it's an awfully close call.

And then there's the second reason, the cinematography, by a man who would be high in the running for the title of "best living cinematographer" if we ever wanted to compile such a list, Roger Deakins, with his first project released in this country since Jarhead over two years ago. Of the many things he does well, one of the best is externalising emotional devastation, and while his work here is not very showy, it is very desolate indeed. Not much of the film, if anything, is "pretty," but all of it is appropriately bleak, particularly the interiors lit with awful fluorescent bulbs or the night exteriors lit with awful sodium vapor bulbs. The film uses a very limited color palette, primarily earth-tones, and much of that is desaturated. This all creates a world that is kind of ugly and it is very easy to believe that ugly things happen here. The film looks like a wasteland, which is just exactly as it should be.

So all in all, this is mostly effective, if not altogether imaginative, and then CrashHaggis wakes from his slumber for the last 10 or 15 minutes (starting at the moment that we learn why Mike was killed), and he grabs his cast-iron skillet with "THEME" molded into the bottom, and he just starts hammering the audience in the face. I'll not spoil it. Let's just say that you're just beginning to regain the ability to focus your vision when the credits end, and the very final image is of a mangled body in Iraq with the words "For the children" underneath. I hate it when people that I agree with politically are assholes.