Filmmaker Paul Haggis has fashioned a riveting script and gripping film from his and Mark Boal’s story inspired by true events. That the movie works so well is testimony to a perfect storm of strong material, superb casting and performances, and great filmmaking craft all converging.

In the Valley of Elah, whose title refers to the locale where David battled Goliath, is all the more notable because Haggis embraces a leisurely pace and a relaxed, studied canvas to build suspense and the emotional and psychological realities of his characters. It’s as stylistically cool in the Valley as it’s hot in the equally suspenseful Bourne franchise.

The film’s true events were reported in a Playboy article which Haggis and Boal refashioned into their tight story. It kicks off in a small Tennessee town where Hank Deerfield (Jones) learns that son Mike (Jonathan Tucker), recently returned from combat in Iraq, has disappeared from his base in New Mexico.

Leaving wife Joan (Susan Sarandon) behind, Hank, a former military man himself, takes off for the Fort Rudd Army base to get to the bottom of things. Obstacles await, including a rash of protective military personnel and police detective Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron) who tells Hank that the disappearance—which has now emerged as the brutal murder of Mike—is in military jurisdiction as Mike’s mutilated body parts were found on base property.

But when Emily does a little more investigative work, she determines that the actual murder occurred off the base. Emily and Hank begin a tentative collaboration as clues and one big red herring emerge.

Hank stumbles upon early hints when he confiscates, against Army orders, Mike’s cell-phone from his room. The media extracted—serving as flashbacks to Mike’s tour of duty in Iraq—suggest he was involved in orgies of torture and senseless deaths.

Further clues expose unexpected aspects of Mike’s character. Was Hank’s beloved son a sadist, a drug mule, a druggie, a boozer? And maybe Mike’s Army buddies—Corporal Steve Penning (Wes Chatham), Specialist Gordon Bonner (Jake McLaughlin), Specialist Ennis Long (Mehcad Brooks) and Private Robert Ortiez (Victor Wolf)—aren’t so innocent.

Details also come by way of topless barmaid Evie (Frances Fisher), one of the last to see Mike when, the night before his murder, he was out partying hard with his buddies. As Hank and Emily move closer to a resolution, they butt heads again and again with Lt. Kirklander (Jason Patric), the officious MP who frustrates their efforts.

In addition to a knockout ending and nifty chase scene (that’s more slo-mo than fast-mo but hugely effective), Haggis gives us complex characters whose flaws are either all too human or shockingly inhuman. Both Hank and certainly Emily are imperfect, yet they command our respect.

In the Valley of Elah amounts to immensely engaging entertainment of a high order, but also provokes thoughts that linger and haunt. A final image encapsulates the film’s most daring message about a horrendous war and those who fight and are victimized by it.