Movies about combat veterans adjusting to life on the home front have had to wait until after a war is over to be widely appreciated by audiences (e.g. THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES, COMING HOME). With the escalation of the current conflict in Afghanistan, I have to wonder if this excellent film about a young mother (Natalie Portman) who finds solace from her ne’er-do-well brother-in-law (Jake Gyllenhaal) after her soldier husband (Tobey Maguire) is presumed dead can avoid being lost in an escapist holiday shuffle. But to pass on this work for its grim subject matter would be to miss out on a performance-driven piece that’s one of the better dramas of the season. The trailer’s promotion of the romance angle between Gyllenhaal (BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN) and Portman (GARDEN STATE) is a little misleading since the primary and secondary plots in David Benioff’s adapted screenplay (See Critic’s Note.) are more about how people deal with guilt over things they’ve done or thought about doing. It’s written all over Maguire’s (SEABISCUIT) face which looks positively haunted by post-war remorse for an act he can’t bring himself to admit. His is the main storyline among others involving supporting characters like Sam Shepherd’s (THE RIGHT STUFF) stoic yet internally tortured ex-Marine forced to confront their personal demons. As directed by Jim Sheridan (IN AMERICA), the movie explores his recurring theme of families in conflict in a well-crafted if somewhat detached fashion. Although predictable, the climactic meltdown scene carries the kind of impact that packs the right sort of punch for a film of this type. That doesn’t make it easier to watch because of the raw emotions it brings out. and the general public may opt not to do so as they have so far with other “war on terrorism” films. That’s too bad because this is an above average drama that’s as effective as it is relevant.
CRITIC’S NOTE: This movie is actually an Americanized version of a 2004 Danish film by Susanne Bier with the same title. That import starred Connie Nielsen (GLADIATOR) as the young wife whose “screw up” brother-in-law gives her and her children comfort when her spouse is presumed dead in Afghanistan. The release of the American film may renew some interest in the original, which is an intensely searing drama worth finding and seeing