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Broth­ers, war­time fam­ily drama, rated R, Re­gal Sta­dium 14, 424-6296, 3 chiles

Broth­ers is about deaths. Many kinds of deaths. Phys­i­cal death, liv­ing death, emo­tional death, slow death, sud­den death, death of the spirit, death of il­lu­sion, the il­lu­sion of death. It’s also about res­ur­rec­tion, but that takes sec­ond billing. This is not a movie that ac­cen­tu­ates the pos­i­tive.

Di­rec­tor Jim Sheri­dan ( In Amer­ica, In the Name of the Fa­ther) and screen­writer David Be­nioff ( The Kite Run­ner) have taken Brø­dre, a 2004 Dan­ish war­time/home-front drama by Su­sanne Bier and re­tooled it for the Amer­i­can mar­ket. In their ver­sion (which is said to hew closely to the struc­ture of the orig­i­nal) we meet the Cahill fam­ily at a cross­roads: good son Sam (Tobey Maguire), a cap­tain in the Marines and de­voted fam­ily man with a wife and two kids, is about to ship out for his third tour of duty in Afghanistan, while bad son Tommy (Jake Gyl­len­haal) is be­ing re­leased from prison on pa­role for armed rob­bery. There’s an awk­ward fam­ily re­union at which their fa­ther, Hank (Sam Shep­ard), a Marine lifer, makes it caus­ti­cally clear which of the two is the fa­vorite son. Sam’s wife, Grace (Natalie Port­man), isn’t crazy about her prodi­gal brother-in-law ei­ther.

Right away we have a lit­tle death (Sam’s de­par­ture) and a lit­tle re­birth (Tommy’s home­com­ing). The next death, the big one, comes with the news that Sam has been killed in

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a he­li­copter crash in Afghanistan. The movies are filled th­ese days with scenes of two crisply uni­formed mes­sen­gers of death arriving to de­liver bad news. (See The Mes­sen­ger for a mil­i­tary ex­am­ple and Up in the Air for the cor­po­rate model of eco­nomic death by lay­off.) Grace gets the news and deals with the shat­ter­ing of her world with a dig­nity that does jus­tice to her name.

Tommy, the con­sum­mate screw-up, tries to rise to the oc­ca­sion. He is alive, Sam is dead, and it doesn’t take a doc­tor­ate in fam­ily re­la­tions to re­al­ize that there is hardly any­one who doesn’t think it should have been the other way around. Tommy is the kind of guy who al­ways seems to have the same scrag­gly growth of beard on his hand­some chin, but we can tell from the start that he’s not re­ally a bad guy. In fact, it’s hard to pic­ture him ac­tu­ally perpetrating the stickup that ter­ror­ized a poor bank clerk out of sev­eral years of sleep and sent Tommy up the river. He seems more the type to get drunk and dis­turb the peace. But he tries, at first in­eptly but then with more suc­cess, to pitch in and take care of his fallen brother’s fam­ily. It’s a re­birth. Grad­u­ally Grace thaws to­ward her scape­grace brother-in-law, the two lit­tle girls grow to love their Un­cle Tommy, and they all de­velop a bond. With Sam dead, we be­gin to spec­u­late on just how full that bond will grow.

The prob­lem is, Sam isn’t dead. We know this al­most im­me­di­ately; as the movie cuts back and forth be­tween the Afghan moun­tains and the home front, we in the au­di­ence fol­low Sam’s cap­ture, along with an­other mem­ber of his pla­toon, by Tal­iban guer­ril­las. We see their im­pris­on­ment in a dry well in the moun­tains and their un­speak­able treat­ment at the hands of their cap­tors. Ul­ti­mately, Sam re­turns home alive, a hero, but with his soul in shreds and his hu­man­ity crushed. A re­birth and an­other death. How this all plays out is the busi­ness of the movie.

Broth­ers deals with the hid­den mor­tal­ity of war, the deaths that go un­recorded be­cause the de­ceased are still alive and out­wardly func­tion­ing. In its var­i­ous forms and de­grees, post­trau­matic stress in re­turn­ing sol­diers de­stroys mar­riages and ca­reers, ru­ins friend­ships and fam­i­lies, and causes ac­tual or vir­tual sui­cides. It’s hard to go off to kill and see your bud­dies be­ing killed and re­turn the same per­son who went away. Tina ( Jenny Wade), a ca­sual date Tommy brings to a birth­day party, gives voice to this un­com­fort­able truth, but no­body wants to hear it.

This movie’s pro­duc­tion is solid, and the cast is ex­cel­lent. Maguire shrinks from the strut­ting rooster who went to war into a scrawny, wild-eyed ban­tam. Port­man brings ma­tu­rity and dig­nity to her role, and Gyl­len­haal warms the pic­ture with his charm, even if he doesn’t make us be­lieve in Tommy’s danger­ous past. Best of all are the two lit­tle girls, Is­abelle (Bailee Madi­son) and Mag­gie (Tay­lor Geare), who break your heart with their un­af­fected in­no­cence and truth.

The prob­lem with Broth­ers is that it doesn’t break your heart enough. The om­ni­scient view we in the au­di­ence see of the big pic­ture mit­i­gates the im­pact of what the play­ers are go­ing through, and our emo­tions are sel­dom deeply en­gaged. It’s sur­pris­ing how of­ten a screen­play de­liv­ers an ob­ser­va­tion that sums up its short­com­ings. Here that line falls to Grace. “I can’t feel it,” she says of Sam’s death. “Shouldn’t I be able to feel it?”

Kin flick: Tobey Maguire and Jake Gyl­len­haal

Amaz­ing Grace: Natalie Port­man with Bailee Madi­son, left, and Tay­lor Geare

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