Sam Cahill (Maguire) is a loyal Marine getting ready to head back to Afghanistan with his men. His wife Grace (Portman) is trying to be strong for their young daughters (Madison and Geare), but his stern father (Shepard) couldn't be prouder. Just before he ships out, Sam's black-sheep brother Tommy (Gyllenhaal) gets out of prison and, when Sam is reported killed in action, he rises to the challenge to help care for Grace and the girls. But several months later Sam is found, and what he experienced has left him dangerously paranoid.
The best thing about this film is the way it so carefully depicts the internal tensions within families. The two scenes during which everyone gathers for family dinners are simply astonishing, as the intensity builds unbearably while we wait for someone to explode. Both of these scenes are packed with raw, electric energy and especially fine performances from the entire cast.
Unfortunately, the whole film isn't this surefooted.
The main problem is that the story continually drifts into overstatement, which is matched by some over-egged performances. Maguire is the main culprit, with his wild eyes and strained neck (even his haircut screams "I am now a tightly wound crazy person"). Opposite him, Portman and Winningham (as the brothers' stepmum) are elegantly understated, and even the slightly over-acting children hold their own. On the other hand, Shepard delivers a terrifically brutal performance as a man defined by his stoicism, while Gyllenhaal is a blast of fresh air as the only person in the movie who feels fully human.
This general lack of subtlety that's the biggest surprise here, as both Sheridan and Benioff know better. The film is slickly shot and impeccably assembled, but it's also manipulative and painfully obvious, constantly signposting its themes. Even so, there's enough ragged interaction in here to keep us gripped. Although it's a bit of a surprise when we realise that Tommy's the only character we care about.
Run time: 105 mins
In Theaters: Friday 4th December 2009
Box Office USA: $28.5M
Distributed by: Lionsgate Films
Production compaines: Lionsgate, Relativity Media, Sighvatsson Films, Michael De Luca Productions, Palomar Pictures (II)
Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 62%
Fresh: 94 Rotten: 57
IMDB: 7.1 / 10
Director: Jim Sheridan
Screenwriter: David Benioff
Starring: Tobey Maguire as Sam Cahill, Jake Gyllenhaal as Tommy Cahill, Natalie Portman as Grace Cahill, Sam Shepard as Hank Cahill, Mare Winningham as Elsie Cahill, Bailee Madison as Isabelle Cahill, Taylor Geare as Maggie Cahill, Clifton Collins, Jr. as Maj. Cavazos, Carey Mulligan as Cassie Willis, Patrick John Flueger as Joe Willis, Jenny Wade as Tina, Omid Abtahi as Yusuf, Ethan Suplee as Sweeney, Navid Negahban as Murad, Ray Prewitt as Owen, Arron Shiver as A.J., Carrie Fleming as Marine Wife, Jason E. Hill as Lt. Sanderson, Kevin Wiggins as Navy Chaplain, Yousuf Azami as Taliban Leader, James D. Dever as Sgt. Major Dever, Luce Rains as The Nose
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