Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot, In America) directs one of the finest acting ensembles of the year in “Brothers,” an isolating and tense drama featuring a standout performance from Tobey Maguire.

Maguire plays Sam Cahill, a family man marine called back into combat shortly after his brother, Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal), returns home on parole.  Natalie Portman plays Grace, Sam’s wife.  During a helicopter mission in Afghanistan, Sam’s chopper is shot down, and he and another private are taken as POWs.  The two are assumed dead.  Grace, her two daughters and the rest of the family quickly hear of this news.  Tommy takes it upon himself to turn his life around and be there for Grace and the kids.

“Brothers” actually surprised me with how low-key the movie plays out (for the most part).  The scenes with Maguire and the torture he endures while taken hostage by the enemy are less intense and sadistic than I was anticipating.  Not to say they aren’t impacting and intense, but Sheridan often cuts away from some of the more disturbing shots.  The film’s greatest strength and source of intensity comes from its many talented actors.   The young actresses that play the daughters are some of the best child actors I’ve witnessed.  10-year-old Bailee Madison, especially, has some remarkable delivery here.  Among the adult actors, Jake Gyllenhaal has a fine understated performance as the distant drunk brother who slowly turns himself into a family man.  Sam Shepherd makes the most of his cliched angry Vietnam vet father spouting off the infamous “the wrong kid died” anger towards Tommy.  Natalie Portman should earn some attention as the confused grieving wife, who in some respects, takes the reigns of the movie.

But above all, perhaps the biggest surprise is Tobey Maguire, showing a side of his acting abilities we haven’t yet seen as we’ve become accustomed to “Spider-Man” and “Seabiscuit.”  Upon his character’s return home following his mind-altering abuse and captivity, Maguire sends “Brothers” soaring with a few select, memorable scenes that ratchet up the tension immensely.  Whether his performance qualifies him for a leading actor role (the Golden Globes thought so) or a supporting actor, it’s disappointing that so many critics’ circles and reviewers are dismissing his performance.  I’ve read phrases like “you either buy his performance or you don’t,” and I can say that I did.  Maguire is finely tuned here, showcasing the dark side of his capabilities.

Overall, “Brothers” often times feels like talented actors and a handful of tense scenes piled on an average “been there, done that” story mixed in with a big anti-war message.  We’ve seen many ‘coming home’ films about the impact of combat and the destructive power it has on its soldiers.  Some of these movies hit (The Hurt Locker, Born on the 4th of July), some miss (Stop Loss), and this one definitely works very well when it works very well.  If for no other reason, the film should be seen for Maguire’s performance and those moments here that are effective.  Otherwise, I found a lot of this to be standard procedure, even if it’s done adequately by a talented cast.

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