Tobey Maguire brings electricity as a given-up-for-dead soldier. (Lorey Sebastian / Lionsgate)
You think you're prepared for "Brothers" -- love triangle, siblings, missing prisoner of war returns to domestic chaos, all the stuff you get from the previews and commercials.
You're not prepared. Because "Brothers," which clings closely to the fine Danish film by Susanne Bier that it's based on, does not go to expected places in expected ways.
You're also not prepared for the guts-on-the-table performance that Tobey Maguire brings to the film. Once one of the most promising young actors of his generation, he's spent most of the past decade in a Spider-Man costume. Well, he's back in the real world now, and he attacks his role here with heretofore undisplayed power.
Maguire plays Capt. Sam Cahill, a straight-arrow soldier going back to war in Afghanistan just as his troubled brother Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal) is getting out of prison. Their stiff father (Sam Shepard), a lifer in the Army himself, is filled with pride over Sam and filled with animosity toward Tommy.
Sam is leaving behind his loving wife Grace (Natalie Portman) and two daughters (Bailee Madison, Taylor Geare). Grace generally disapproves of Tommy as well, because he gives her plenty of reason to do so. But Sam remains his brother's friend and ally at all times.
When Sam is in a helicopter that's shot down over enemy territory, the Army assumes he has perished along with all his fellow soldiers. But Sam has survived along with green Pvt. Joe Willis (Patrick Flueger), and they have been taken captive by the enemy.
As far as Grace and the rest of the family know, though, she is now a widow and Sam is gone. And eventually Tommy starts coming around, bringing buddies over to build Grace a new kitchen, and getting to know Sam's daughters.
Before too long, as Sam is being tortured in the mountains, his children form a bond with their uncle -- who's a lot more fun than their ramrod straight father ever was -- and Grace does as well.
Meanwhile, Tommy finds a sense of stability as a father figure and begins to live responsibly. Then the traumatized Sam is rescued. And he returns to his once-cozy domain to find his brother has, in some ways, taken his place.
Again, director Jim Sheridan ("In the Name of the Father," "In America") has wisely elected to stay with the basics of the original film, although certain characters and situations are new. He and screenwriter David Benioff have, however, made this a most American-feeling film.
The casting here is superb -- sparkling newcomer Carey Mulligan has a small but essential role, the ever-dependable Clifton Collins Jr. plays Sam's commanding officer, Mare Winningham shows her usual grace as the boys' stepmother, and the young girls are particularly touching (Sheridan has a way with kids).
As you'd expect, Portman and Gyllenhaal bring their characters to life with heart and intelligence.
But the film belongs to Maguire, as it should. Yes, it's another film about the awful cracks that run through the minds of some soldiers returning home, and another portrait of a man bearing an unthinkable burden. Don't come to this movie expecting chuckles.
But Sheridan and Maguire orchestrate things perfectly here, running a line of tension through the film that explodes at the end, just as it should.
War never ends. Soldiers come home, adapt, move on, hopefully prosper. But the horror of the battlefield lives on in their veins evermore, and easily spreads outward to family and friends.
"Brothers" captures that cold reality, one we too easily and conveniently ignore. It's a challenging, disturbing film to watch. It should be.