Review in a Hurry: War is a hell that's contagious. That's the theme running through this tale of a family nearly ripped apart by the Afghanistan conflict. But deft acting—hello Tobey Maguire, Jake Gyllenhaal, Natalie Portman—saves the flick from wallowing too deeply into melodrama.
The Bigger Picture: Things are already pretty shaky for the Cahill family; Tommy (Gyllenhaal) is a loser who's done time for a bank heist, Sam (Maguire) is a Marine whose pants are so tightly creased that's more at home with his fellow soldiers than his wife and kids, and their Dad (Sam Shepard) never got over his tour in 'Nam. Instead he took out all his stresses on his wife and boys. Then Sam's chopper goes down in Afghanistan, presumably shot down by the Taliban, and everyone's nerves are shaved to the snapping point.
The resulting film, from Jim Sheridan, the same director behind My Left Foot and In the Name of the Father, is a series of fights, rematches, crying jags and pressure-cooker silences. Execution-wise, it's nearly flawless, with Maguire's head and face almost literally a perfect cube of pent-up paranoia.
As Sam's wife, Grace, and the mom of Sam's two girls, Portman moves through her scenes with unsentimental efficiency and matter-of-fact love, avoiding the patronizing idealism that less talented young actresses might mistake for parenthood. When the breakdowns do come, it's almost apologetic; she simply isn't able to hold it together in between packing the girls' lunches and managing Tommy's clumsy attempts to help rebuild her life. Nothing gets overwrought for too long, either, thanks to a brisk pace that moves us from spat to spat, plus an ending that will let teary-eyed audiences leave on a up note.
The question isn't whether the picture is any good; most of the elements, on their own, are at least better than average. The issue is whether, after nearly two hours of utter misery, including the heartbreaking meltdown of one of the Cahill girls, will American audiences—already weary from a thrashed economy and a seemingly unending war in Afghanistan—feel entertained? Or just exhausted?
The 180—a Second Opinion: Every single second of this flick screams Oscar bait. If you like seeing Academy Award contenders, get in line now.
There's so much else to see, too—have a look in our Totally New Releases gallery!