Jim Sheridan’s quiet movie about the effects of war on a family comes five years after its Danish predecessor, but it’s still as relevant now as it was then. There is a certain kind of pressure for war films about Iraq and Afghanistan to be political, to take a stand and make a statement about war itself. When a story (like this one) chooses instead to focus on the human interactions that result from war, many people write it off as a failure of a film. But Sheridan’s melodrama isn’t supposed to be a political statement about the war at all: it was always supposed to be a detailed, probing look at humans living during a war. It’s an extremely well-acted story.
Captain Sam Cahill (Tobey Maguire) is a quiet man who is a member of the Marine Corps and has a lovely wife named Grace (Natalie Portman). The two of them have two daughters, and they live in an unnamed Midwestern town. Before Sam is shipped off to Afghanistan, he picks up his bad-seed brother Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal) from prison. From there, the story unfolds naturally. At a family dinner, the boys’ father Hank (Sam Shepard) loses his temper with Tommy and viewers begin to see the complicated layers that surround the family. Sheridan doesn’t hurry with the story, allowing events to unfold naturally and while the tension is often palpable, it never feels forced.
Sam is shipped off, and then his helicopter crashes and he’s assumed dead. The truth is that he and another one of his soldiers are taken hostage, tortured, and starved for three months. During this time, Tommy and Grace deal with their grief both separately and apart. Viewers watch as Tommy steps up and helps take over the role of raising Grace’s two little girls. When Sam comes home and is a ghost of his former self–skeletal and haunted by what he’s seen and done, the family must make adjustments once again. The last bit of the film is explosive and hard to watch, but the three leads deliver such strong performances that it’s impossible to tear one’s eyes away from the screen.
There are moments where the film is in danger of becoming heavy-handed, especially when dealing with the relationship between Tommy and his father, but these moments are balanced out by other scenes that are full of honest, real human interaction. Worth mentioning are the little girls in the movie, who both put out performances that are heart-breaking and realistic and never precocious. Overall, the film’s performances carry it, and while it isn’t going to go down in history as one of the best films ever, it isn’t one that should be discounted, either.