A modest but moving melodrama, "Brothers" examines the impact of the Afghanistan war on one conflicted American family. Irish director Jim Sheridan, who has worked in the United States in recent decades, works in intimate detail, concentrating on personalities rather than battleground action. Structured in parallel sections contrasting war and home, it follows siblings who exchange roles, a hero who returns from the front erratic and violent, and an ex-con who learns self-control when he's handed responsibility.

Tobey Maguire plays Capt. Sam Cahill, a Marine about to begin his fourth tour in Afghanistan. His wife, Grace (Natalie Portman), puts up a brave front about his absence, while their daughters Isabelle (Bailee Madison) and Maggie (Taylor Geare) can scarcely hide their disappointment.

Days before he embarks, Sam collects younger brother Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal) from prison, where he has served three years for bank robbery. The men share a love-hate relationship. Tommy is hot-tempered and frequently drunk, to the unconcealed disgust of their father (Sam Shepard), a Marine Vietnam veteran. A homecoming dinner, one of several uneasy family meals featured throughout, turns into a battlefield between the disapproving father and prodigal son.

While on deployment Sam is presumed dead. With the hero of the family absent, Tommy pulls himself together. He begins spending time with Grace and the girls, taking them on ice skating trips and remodeling their long-neglected house. The four begin to form an emotional connection, unaware that Sam survived his helicopter crash. Starved and tortured by his Taliban captors, he returns home physically and emotionally scarred, hiding secrets that will return to haunt him. Projecting his self-reproach on Tommy, he jealously accuses the black sheep of cheating with Grace and explodes in violent rages. Tommy becomes the family's protector.

Adapted from a first-class 2004 Danish drama of the same title, this remake never achieves the naturalistic impact of the original. "Brothers" cops out with a corny, blubbery Hollywood ending instead of something gutsy. Still, it's worthy on its own terms. Sheridan is generally a splendid actor's director, following even sideline performances with attentive closeups. Maguire's full-out emotional range here is a career pinnacle. From his early scenes as a blissful family man, through his horror and confusion in captivity, to his combustible moods back home, he's riveting. Shepard's ramrod old soldier is as abrasive as 40-grit sandpaper; he deserves more time onscreen. The young actresses playing Isabelle and Maggie are captivating and heart-rending, while Carey Mulligan ("An Education") makes a nuanced impression in a brief turn as a war widow. Even the three roustabouts who help Tommy renovate Grace's kitchen are vivid.

The cast isn't uniformly strong, however. Gyllenhaal lacks menace as Tommy. He's more a scalawag than a renegade, and there's no yearning sexual heat in his almost-romance with Grace. Portman dimples prettily and cries on cue but she could be coated in Teflon; her performance doesn't stick with you.

The film packs a wallop. Too bad about the missteps. It could've been a knockout.

Colin Covert • 612-673-7186