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Subtle “Brothers” tackles hellish aftereffects of war

War cripples the life a Marine (Tobey Maguire) shares with his wife (Natalie Portman) in "Brothers."

There’s a line from Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est” that’s always haunted me, and watching Jim Sheridan’s “Brothers” I couldn’t shake the feeling I was watching the poem’s story come to life. Trudging the trenches in World War I, the poet sums up his reality in five words: “All went lame; all blind.” Press on the soldiers do, but not as men; war has taken their souls. There’s nothing left.

Though times have changed, the sentiment has not. Months spent in an Afghanistan prison camp have turned Capt. Sam Cahill (Tobey Maguire) from a young, fiercely dedicated Marine into a blank shell. War has made him strange to his wife and two daughters, his father and his younger brother. More than that, war has made Sam strange to himself. Maguire, so deliberate in his expressions and awkward movements, gives us a man who doesn’t know who he is. Fear has him cornered, and in violently clawing to get free he terrifies his family.

A remake of Susanne Bier’s 2005 Danish film, “Brothers” touches on the ways Sam’s experience changes his family dynamic. Before leaving for his fourth tour overseas, his life is stable: He is married to his high school sweetheart Grace (Natalie Portman) and has two daughters, Isabel (the phenomenally talented Bailee Madison) and Maggie (Taylor Geare). He has the respect of his father Hank (Sam Shepard), also a military man, and a promising career in the service. Even his relationship with his aimless younger brother Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal), recently released from prison after doing a stint for armed robbery, is solid. But after deployment, Sam’s helicopter is shot down and he’s presumed dead. Grace struggles to hold it together, and she gets help from an unlikely source: Tommy, who’s trying ineptly but earnestly to be a better person. 

Here “Brothers” diverges into two storylines: that of Sam and Private Willis (Patrick Flueger), captured and tortured by the Afghani resistance, and Grace and Tommy, attempting to adjust to life without Sam. These stories share a commonality: They are about survival. Sam does things he believes to be unforgivable to get back to his daughters and Grace, while she and Tommy form a bond out of the necessity to stay afloat. Sexual tension develops that becomes more complicated when Sam is rescued. Broken though he is, Sam notices their bond, observing that Tommy and Grace look like “two teen-agers in love.” His observation turns into an obsession, and one Sam clings to in order to give his life focus.

The quiet performances keep “Brothers” from spilling into histrionics. Shepard communicates Hank’s anguish with precious few words; his guilt is wrenching. Portman plays Grace not as a sobbing mess but a damaged woman rebuilding her life, then coming to grips with what’s left of her husband. Gyllenhaal is affecting as Tommy, who wants to make a life for himself. He confronts his past, though not without fear; watch his face change as he sees the woman he robbed. Madison, only 10, nearly matches him in subtlety. She’s a true find, an actress with remarkable timing. (Note how her eyes scan Maguire’s face; she manifests a connection with the actor that feels real.) And much praise has been heaped upon Maguire for this role, but he deserves every word. His part requires both restraint and wildness; war split Sam down the middle. And when Maguire lets loose, his rage is frightening and heart-breaking. This is the performance of his career.

Though “Brothers” examines the aftereffects of war, it is more than a war film. This, too, is a look at guilt, regret and how they trickle down. Haunted by his time Vietnam, Hank assigns Sam and Tommy the roles he expects them to play. He tries to drink away that guilt, but the drink stops working. The time Tommy spends with Grace makes him regret the years he wasted drunk and drifting. Sam bears the heaviest load, the twin burdens of work vs. family and the guilt attached to what he did as a prisoner in Afghanistan. In essence, everyone here asks: Is redemption possible? The fact that they muster the courage to ask makes “Brothers” one of the most challenging and gripping films of 2009.

 Grade: A