Film opens Dec. 4: The jury might still be out on what to do in Afghanistan, but the public has spoken on war movies: nobody buys tickets to them anymore. It's a good thing that Hollywood hasn't seemed to notice (or care), because this year included some terrific offerings in the genre. All three movies—The Hurt Locker, The Messenger, Brothers—demonstrate that war is hell, but they also show us that the most difficult fights aren't always on the battlefield. They're often right in the kitchen, after the war, when the soldiers come face to face with loved ones who can't comprehend what combat does to a person's soul. When the main character in The Hurt Locker, a bomb-detonation expert, is asked by his wife to buy cereal or chop carrots, it's clear that he can't cope with the banality of his old life. (Article continued below…)
Brothers is the most recent of the three films, and perhaps the most mainstream. Based on a 2004 Danish movie by Susanne Bier and directed by Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot), it stars Tobey Maguire as a Marine named Sam who leaves home for Afghanistan just as his brother, Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal), returns home from jail. Sam's wife, Grace (Natalie Portman), and their kids (the excellent Bailee Madison and Taylor Geare) find themselves torn between the two men: hating the father who comes back completely changed, loving the ex-con who stayed with them. The film's most powerful scene is actually set at a child's birthday party, where one of the girls won't stop rubbing a balloon to make a screeching sound. To most parents it's an everyday annoyance. To Sam the noise sounds like gunfire and serves as a reminder of how he can no longer relate to his family's happiness. It's a metaphor for his fragile psyche.
Portman has some of the most difficult scenes, and this is her most accomplished work since Closer. But Brothers is Maguire's movie. So gaunt that he almost looks like a ghost, he bites into his character like a rabid dog. Brothers shows us that even when our troops do come home, their war may be far from over.