- Released Internationally on 03/12/09
- Released in Malta by KRS on 10/03/10
In a nutshell
Sam and Tommy are brothers. Sam is a marine. Sam has a hot wife. They have two lovely girls. Tommy is a dropout. Tommy just got out of prison. Sam goes to war. Sam dies. Tommy consoles his wife and kids. They warm to him. A lot. But Sam isn’t really dead.
Sam (Tobey Maguire – Spider-man, Seabiscuit) is the apple of his father’s eye. An accomplished captain in the marines, he was always the athletic type. After marrying his childhood sweetheart, a cheerleader, he settles down to raise two delightful daughters, but he constantly yearns for new missions and assignments with his men, and is about to be deployed to Afghanistan. This all sits very nicely with his Vietnam-veteran father, Hank (Sam Shepard – The Right Stuff, Black Hawk Down).
Jake Gyllenhaal (Brokeback Mountain, Donnie Darko) plays Tommy, whose list of achievements is slightly less commendable. After serving time for armed robbery, he is back in the family picture without an address, car, job, or the respect of his father. Sam believes in him, but Sam’s wife sees him as a nuisance, and isn’t too happy to have him around the children. He tries his best to behave well, so as to reduce the tension during family meals, but he’s not used to following the rules.
Sam’s wife, Grace (a luminous Natalie Portman – V for Vendetta, Closer), is clearly in love with her husband and kids. She hates it when he flies off to war, but understands that her pleas to keep him home will never go beyond the joking stage. When two uniformed officers show up at her door, barely one day into his latest mission, her world comes crashing down, and she struggles to keep her family going as the whole town mourns the fallen war hero.
Shell-shocked and helpless, Grace finds unlikely support in Tommy, who sees a chance to redeem himself in the family's eyes, and ropes in some friends of his to revamp the kitchen, providing loads of entertainment for the children in the process, and giving Grace some time to think and soak it all in. He even seems to be heading for some reluctant approval from his father, and for once he feels useful. The children grow to love him, and like a rabbit in headlights we watch as the inevitable unfolds.
Only the dead have seen the end of war
Whilst offering few surprises or novelties in the central relationship triangle, the film is a powerful indictment of the lasting effect on war on those exposed to its harsh hand. Maguire transforms before our eyes as he cracks under the horrors of captivity in Afghanistan, and when he finally returns to home soil he is very evidently a traumatised and changed man. Maybe the only person who can understand him is his father, though we never learn the extent of what he had been through in Vietnam. Grace and the children are confused and wary as to how to react to this eerily silent new version of the main in their life. Maguire's excellent restraint builds and builds as his audience, both off-screen and on-screen, wonder whether he will ever reveal what he saw and did that has reduced him to this. His suspicions about Tommy could well be a breaking point, but they are merely a symptom, not a cause.
War films continue to flourish and the rich subject matter continues to provide ample material for great storytelling. This year was no exception, and this film complements two other great films that together tackle three connected aspects of present-day war. The Hurt Locker focused mainly on the addictive aspect of war, and comes to mind as Sam seeks to sign up for repeat missions, despite being fully aware of what lies in store. War is a suitable escape for those who are too changed to return to normality. The Messenger was another excellent 2009 offering, and had at its core the nasty job of informing relatives about deceased soldiers, just as two officers knocked on Grace's door. It also delved into the turmoil one feel's when he returns as a hero, although deep down he feels anything but. Sam is hailed as a hero, but we know he will never be one, and he will carry his emotional scars for life.
In the end
Based on the 2004 Danish film with the same name, this is a well-acted remake, which is very topical and worth some thought. Tobey Maguire is startling to watch at times, and he shows a range often overlooked in earlier roles. The child actors, so crucial to the story, are also impressive. Don't expect any fresh take on the relationship side, but the message about war is undiluted and well-conveyed.