And all three - Portman, Maguire, Gyllenhaal - turn in the best work of their careers.
Maguire is Sam Cahill, a Marine captain, called up for a return trip to Afghanistan with his men. He leaves behind two young daughters and Grace (Portman), his high school sweetheart. (She has "Sam" tattooed on her shoulder.) The Cahill girls are accustomed to his absences, but no less anxious each new time he decamps. The officers in dress uniform who come knocking on neighbors' doors in this Minnesota military town are an all too familiar - and dreaded - sight.
And this time, the bearers of bad news arrive at the Cahills' front steps. Sam was in a helicopter that crashed in rugged terrain in Taliban country. He is presumed dead.
While the audience discovers that Sam has survived and is being held prisoner, for the Cahills the process of mourning - the ache, the grief - begins to bore a hole into the family's collective soul. Sam's father, a Vietnam vet who long ago turned to booze, is broken by the loss of his "good" son. Sam Shepard is this bitter, taciturn man, and it's a fine portrayal. And young Bailee Madison, as Sam and Grace's firstborn, Isabelle, gives one of those frighteningly empathetic performances that little kids in the company of practiced actors sometimes, somehow, come up with. Her hurt is palpable.
As for Tommy Cahill (Gyllenhaal), a hard-drinking screw-up straight out of a Raymond Carver story, he finds a new sense of responsibility and purpose in his brother's absence. "Uncle Tommy" becomes a sort of surrogate father figure. He gets close with Grace - in ways neither of them is entirely comfortable with. And he brings in a crew to renovate Grace's ramshackle kitchen. Driven by grief, guilt, and his own needs - not by calculation - Tommy insinuates himself into Grace's and Isabelle's and little Maggie's life.
Which creates a problem when Sam, finally, is rescued and returns home. Brothers is a movie about post-traumatic stress disorder, about how war forces people to do unspeakable things, irrevocably changing them. Maguire, gaunt and hollow-eyed, is chilling as the soldier come home, bearing an ugly secret and the scars of months in captivity.
If Sheridan's Brothers has a failing in comparison to Bier's, it is in the section with Sam and a Marine private (Patrick Flueger) as fellow prisoners in the mountains of Afghanistan. The private's failure to hold steady becomes an irritant to Sam as the two of them are kept for week upon week in a dark hole, tortured and afraid. In Bier's version, you feel Sam's resentment for this weaker man, deep down. It is that contempt, that psychologically frayed loathing - fueled by their abuse at the hands of the guerrilla fighters - that helps to explain the horrific events Sam is forced to be party to. Sheridan's version doesn't quite get to that same point, which makes Sam's actions seem less convincing.
But this is a small bone to pick, and perhaps viewers unfamiliar with Bier's film won't even know.
Irish director Sheridan (In the Name of the Father, In America) is a master of concise storytelling, able to describe family dynamics in keen detail (look at the way Gyllenhaal's Tommy eats his peas at a family dinner - his gestures speak volumes), getting to bigger issues through the small. Brothers is a heartbreaking film that speaks to the lifelong aftershocks of war, and to the powerful bonds of family and of love.
Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/onmovies/