By EW Staff
Updated August 10, 2007 04:00 AM
Credit: Lorey Sebastian

In early 2006, Charlize Theron and writer-director Paul Haggis kept bumping into each other in dark alleys. ”When I was doing the awards circuit with North Country, he was there with Crash,” Theron explains. ”Back then we were still smokers, and we were always the two losers out in an alley having a cigarette, talking nonstop.” Haggis eventually mentioned a screenplay he was working on — based on real events — about a young soldier who returns from Iraq, only to go AWOL. Many months later, when she finally read Haggis’ finished script, Theron immediately said, ”I’m in.”

She plays Emily Sanders, a New Mexico detective who assists an ex-military man (Tommy Lee Jones) when he comes to town to investigate the disappearance of his Iraq-vet son. (Haggis originally approached Clint Eastwood — for whom he wrote the Million Dollar Baby script — to play the Jones part, but Eastwood ”told me he was never going to act in anything else,” Haggis says.) Only gradually, after we realize what’s happened to the soldier, does Elah morph from a whodunit into a film asking questions about the war. ”I wanted to start out like this one’s a murder mystery, and then halfway through say to the audience, ‘You know, that’s not really important anymore, is it?”’ Haggis says. ”It’s a moral mystery more than anything else.”

A film about the effects of the war on soldiers when they return home is certainly not an easy sell. ”I think it is going to be upsetting,” says Susan Sarandon, who plays the soldier’s mother. ”I don’t think people want to know the damage this war is doing to our men.” But Haggis doesn’t see Elah as a political film. ”It doesn’t matter if you thought going into Iraq was right or wrong,” he says. ”Let’s set all that aside and ask, ‘What’s the hidden human cost?’ I have the same hope for [Elah] that I had for Crash — that it’ll stir debate, that people will walk out of the theater arguing and talking about what’s happening in America.” Arguing about politics? We can’t imagine.