(2009) Drama (Lionsgate) Jake Gyllenhaal, Natalie Portman, Tobey Maguire, Bailee Madison, Taylor Geare, Sam Shepard, Mare Winningham, Patrick Flueger, Clifton Collins Jr., Josh Berry, Carey Mulligan, Ethan Suplee, Omid Abtahi. Directed by Jim Sheridan
The thing about brothers is that even though they come from the same genetics, sometimes they are nothing alike on the surface. Often though, they are more alike than you might think even though they don’t appear to be at first glance.
Sam Cahill (Maguire) is a family man and a respected marine. His men adore him, his family worships him and his father Hank (Shepard), ex-military himself, respects him. Sam’s wife Grace (Portman) loves him without reservation and has given him two sweet young daughters – precocious Isabelle (Madison) and adorable Maggie (Geare).
Sam’s brother Tommy (Gyllenhaal) is a different matter. He’s just out of prison where he served time for armed robbery. His father is ashamed by him, his sister-in-law barely tolerates him and only his brother and nieces seem to think that he has any value to him at all. Tommy is determined to make a fresh start and stay clean, but he’s said that before and unfortunately Sam is about to be deployed to Afghanistan. He’s made it through three tours though and while Grace is worried she knows that he’ll move heaven and earth to make it back safely.
But this time, he doesn’t. Word comes in that the helicopter that Sam was in went down and all aboard were lost. Because it went down in the water, there isn’t even a body to ship home for them to bury. They’re all devastated, Tommy and Grace most of all. Hidden resentments between Tommy and Hank come out at the funeral despite the efforts of Elsie (Winningham) – Tommy and Sam’s mom, Hank’s wife – to keep the peace. Hank’s alcohol problem becomes a bit more noticeable now.
Tommy is racked with guilt – guilt over things unsaid, things undone. There are some repairs to the kitchen that Sam had always been meaning to get to but never had. Tommy makes that his personal mission now. He recruits some locals to help build Grace a new kitchen. He becomes closer to Sam’s kids, almost a big brother instead of a screw-up uncle. He and Grace begin to not only develop a closer relationship, but one which might go further than either one ever imagined.
Except that the reports of Sam’s demise turned out to be somewhat exaggerated. It turns out that Sam and fellow New Mexican Joe Willis (Flueger) were captured by the Taliban. Both were held by them for over a year, under constant torture and in cruel and inhuman conditions. In order to survive, Sam is forced to do heinous deeds – things that haunt him long after he’s rescued and brought home.
Once home, things don’t get any better for Sam. He’s paranoid and haunted by his terrible wartime secrets. He’s also convinced that Tommy and Grace had been sleeping with each other. The trouble with that is that even though nothing has happened between Tommy and Grace other than a somewhat passionate kiss after an evening of drinking, it wasn’t that the thought hadn’t crossed their minds to take it farther. And despite their protestations to the contrary, Sam can’t get past his fears, leading to an inevitable confrontation that may lead to tragedy.
This is based on the Danish film Brodre by Suzanne Bier which was a much more spare, Spartan film which was largely improvised. This here is far more scripted and features three actors at the top of their games – Portman (who would go on to win an Oscar just a year later), Gyllenhaal (who’d already been nominated for one) and Maguire, best known for his portrayal of Peter Parker in the Spider-Man franchise.
In many ways Maguire has the most opportunity here and he seizes it. Generally he hasn’t had to access the darker aspects of his nature, but here he certainly must; it is the kind of performance that opens your eyes to new possibilities for an actor. Quite honestly, I’d always thought Maguire made a fine Peter Parker – a bit of a nerd with a few action chops and a pretty decent sense of comic timing. However, here he shows he’s capable of considerably darker roles and hopefully he’ll get considered for a few.
Gyllenhaal has a less meaty role as the brother finding redemption as he tries to pick up the pieces after a tragedy. The thing to remember here is that Gyllenhaal had a tragedy of his own to deal with – it was while he was filming this movie that his close friend Heath Ledger passed away, a passing that affected him deeply. Much of the middle third of the movie has Tommy dealing with the grief of the mistaken news of Sam’s passing; I don’t know how much of that portion of the movie was filmed before the news broke about Ledger but Tommy’s grief was a caged tiger throughout the movie, kept carefully inside his enclosure but the claws come out unexpectedly. It’s an understated performance that may not be flashy but compliments his other two leads nicely.
Portman is really in many ways the center of the movie, although ostensibly this is about the relationship between Sam and Tommy. She’s the lynchpin, the crux which the story revolves around. She’s not merely a plot device; she has real emotions, turning her grief into a renewed closeness to her daughters. Like Gyllenhaal, the performance is restrained and subtle; as a mom, she has to keep a lot of her anguish inside for the sake of her kids who need to lean on her as their rock (as does Tommy, to be honest). She’s very much a salt of the earth sort, one who does her duty without fanfare or need for applause – every inch the military wife. It wouldn’t surprise me if Portman spent some time with military wives to gain insight.
For the most part, the plot moves at a crisp and even pace. That is, until the third act when things break down a little bit. Part of it is due to story construction – we know what Sam is hiding, and a good deal of time has been spent showing us what he went through. It might have been far more effective to leave that offscreen (or told in flashback form) so that we are on the same level playing field with Sam’s family leaving us off-balance when Sam starts to change. At that point, the movie goes in a fairly predictable direction.
Still, with performances such as the ones in the lead roles you really can’t lose. While I wish that we were left to wonder, as Grace was, why her husband was acting the way he was, I can’t quarrel with the strength of the underlying material nor with its timeliness. This is one of those movies that might have escaped your notice both at the box office and as a rental that you might want to give a second look to.
WHY RENT THIS: The performances of the three leads are riveting. Tautly directed and well-paced.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Loses steam in the third act. Too many subplots.
FAMILY VALUES: There is bad language and violence; some of the latter is pretty disturbing.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: When a back injury threatened to derail Maguire’s participation in Spider-Man 2, Gyllenhaal would have been the first choice to replace him.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a featurette on how the picture developed from the Danish original and how the two films compare.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $43.3M on a $26M production budget; the movie fell just shy of breaking even at the box office.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Hurt Locker
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Scream 4