Tobey Maguire is the dark, compelling heart of Jim Sheridan’s surprising new film, Brothers. A remake of a recent Danish film (that I have not seen), Brothers is one of those small character dramas that tend to go so wrong once their budgets have been elevated out of the indie range, but the film – thanks largely to a subtle, smart script by David Benioff and a couple of firecracker performances – works much more often than it doesn’t.

Maguire is Sam Cahill, a captain in the Marines with a wife and two daughters, who is about to go back to Afghanistan. He’s the good one, while Jake Gyllenhaal is Tommy, the bad one, tattooed and just getting out of prison for a robbery. Both men are the result of pressure exerted by their drunken, abusive Marine of a father, although each reacted to that pressure in very different ways. When Sam’s chopper goes down everyone thinks he’s dead and tries to move on from the pain. Grace, Sam’s wife played with serious dignity  by Natalie Portman, is paralyzed by grief but finds a way out of the darkness as Tommy steps up into the void left by Sam and starts being a father to the two girls and maybe something special to Grace. But meanwhile Sam is held by Taliban in the mountains of Afghanistan, brutally tortured and eventually completely broken. When he returns home, Sam finds the family that kept him going in the worst of circumstances is no longer there.

A problem that many will have with Brothers is that the basic set up of the movie – as told above and shown in every one of the trailers – takes up the first two acts of the film. Sam returning home is a crucial component in the story but it happens late in the game, and that can lead to a feeling that the film is predictable. But Brothers is a character film, not a plot-driven film (although the plot does take over in the final minutes), and what makes the first two acts absorbing are the characters and the actors. But there are small surprises along the way – Sam never drops out of the movie, and Sheridan follows him through truly awful tortures at the hands of Islamic extremists, offering a chilling counterpoint to the slowly developing domestic bliss at home. For the most part, though, Brothers goes exactly where you think it will go, but it does so with grace and skill.

It’s the counterpoints between the two settings – Afghanistan and the homefront –  that made Brothers work so well for me. As Tommy slowly discovers the responsible man inside of him we see Sam slowly discover the angry beast he has hidden away. The two brothers slowly change places – not a new conceit, but one played out with deft craft. The dread and horror of the Afghanistan scenes slowly leaks into the happiness of the homefront scenes as you realize the savagely broken Sam will be returning home soon. There are moments in the homefront scenes where you forget that there even is a Sam, but soon enough Sheridan draws the focus back to the cage in which he’s held. Sheridan makes the great choice to remove almost all conflict from the homefront scenes; without the Afghanistan counterpoints Brothers would be a treacly film with a slightly creepy romance – is it okay for Tommy and Grace to fall in love? – but with the storm on the horizon the warmth of home feels fleeting.

That storm is Tobey Maguire. The actor gives a performance unlike any I’ve ever seen from him; fierce and wounded and very often quite terrifying. He plays Sam in three distinct stages: in the beginning Sam is a fairly ordinary if fairly stiff family man; in Afghanistan he crumbles and breaks in a totally real way (semi-spoilers: Sam does something reprehensible to survive, and one of the things I really like about the script is that Sam doesn’t just do it because he wants to live or because he wants to get home and see his family – he also does it because he is disgusted by weakness. I can’t say more without spoiling it, and the movie doesn’t make it explicit, but it’s there and it’s part of the film’s unusual subtlety); and then back at home he is deeply wounded and confused and angry. Maguire seems to physically transform with each change in Sam, and by the end he’s a bomb waiting to explode. Maguire does it all with his eyes, though – late stage Sam is all formal Marine stillness, which is scarier than a twitching mess. His huge, watery eyes have the feel of a vicious, trapped animal, looking for danger in every moment, even as he’s shaving. In a lot of ways Brothers is a throwback to those 70s Vietnam vet movies, the Coming Home type of films, but I’m glad it’s set in the modern day, as period pieces can be too distancing.

At any rate, Maguire is excellent. In a better world he’d be getting Oscar buzz right now, if only for the fact that scrawny, silly Tobey Maguire scared me in the third act of the film. A birthday party becomes a scene of escalating, unbearable tension and the ramrod straight Maguire slowly convinced me that he could and would kill a little girl who was disobeying him; never falling back on hacky signifiers of insanity, Maguire creates a complexly terrifying character.

Also strong is Natalie Portman. Stuck in a role that’s half thankless she manages to find the quiet strength in this smalltown girl facing unthinkable tragedy. Lots of characters in the film  acknowledge how beautiful she is – finally! A movie where the super pretty Hollywood types are actually super pretty! – but she never feels like an LA type making a visit to a small town. She may be smarter than my prejudices tell me a cheerleader who marries a football player turned Marine would be, but she’s got the inner stability that I find believable in a mother of two. Portman doesn’t go for cheap histrionics and plays Grace as a character who keeps it together, turning her grief into catatonia. She also has a great rapport with Gyllenhaal; the scenes of their ‘courtship,’ such as it is, ring true and believable.

Which, sadly, is more than can be said for Gyllenhaal at the beginning of the movie. Tommy is supposed to be a bad kid, one who drank and fought all through high school and one who spent years in prison on an armed robbery beef. But Gyllenhaal doesn’t have a bad bone in his body, and all the fake neck tattoos in the world don’t change that. He’s too good natured and sweet; I would have bought Tommy as a drug smuggler or something, but there’s zero violence in Gyllenhaal. To be fair I would have said the same about Maguire before seeing this film, but he proved me wrong in the performance, while Gyllenhaal does no such thing.

That’s not to say that Gyllenhaal is bad – he delivers a fine performance, and he’s a sweet surrogate dad. But there’s no transformation like that which Maguire undergoes. Tommy doesn’t so much change as adjust, which is dramatically unsatisfying. The script thinks Tommy changes, but Gyllenhaal is unable to play it. He basically holds his own in the film, but in the end he’s totally outclassed by Maguire and Portman.

Brothers mostly steers away from melodrama, going instead for character drama. The basic story is melodramatic at its heart, but Benioff’s script shies away from pushing things, and it wisely keeps the relationship between Grace and Tommy in check. It also allows you to see all sides of the situation. You can feel the heartbreak Sam feels upon coming home and seeing that everyone has moved on, you can see the disappointment that Tommy feels when the new adult life he has been building for himself is taken away and you can understand the strange place in which Grace finds herself, stuck with this changed man who was once her love while the memories of an improved life are still fresh. And Sheridan cuts it all with a sense of building doom and dread; not everyone will like the resolution of the film, but I think the movie earns the ending.

It’s rare that a movie surprises me as thoroughly as Brothers did. I expected overblown Oscarbait and instead got a fairly restrained character drama featuring a career best performance from an actor I had never taken all that seriously before. It’s not one of the best films of the year, but it’s the kind of movie I’d like to see the indie majors attempt to make more often.

8.5 out of 10