The latest installment of our “Mockingbird at the Movies” column comes to us from Addie Jenkins:
“Grace knows I would do anything to get back to her.”
These are the first words spoken by Captain Sam Cahill, played by Tobey Maguire in the 2009 wartime psychological drama, Brothers. Though referring to his wife, the line might also strike a chord in grace-parched hearts, or with those held captive by law for God knows how long, be it martial or spiritual. Based on a 2005 Danish film by the same name, Jim Sheridan’s adaptation drops its viewers into the pit of the painfully raw emotions that live in places of war, both foreign and domestic; as far east as a Taliban POW camp, as domestic as the newly tiled counter tops in your near spotless kitchen.
When Captain Cahill is deployed for Afghanistan on a second tour, he leaves with a decorated name, a picturesque family of four (wife played by Natalie Portman), and the hard-earned praise and approval of his demanding, cold-blooded Vietnam vet father. Indeed, the father is both an implicit and explicit stand-in for the Law; his personal fulfillment is nursed, shamefully and unapologetically so, from his son’s ability to ‘do the right thing,’ and produce the expected honor and patriotic glory. Expectation is a planned resentment, so they say.
While Sam, with his self-discipline, stoicism and innate desire to please, meets these expectations with relative ease, his brother Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal) does not. Tommy is the ne’er-do-well, intimately acquainted with his personal need—to be forgiven, to be bailed out of jail, to be rescued from his self-inflicted mess of a life. One might even say that his inability to measure up is his dominant characteristic. Tommy is not unlike the individual written within the pages of Grace In Addiction, who knows full well that he is “incapable of doing better just because [he] knows better.”
To no surprise, it is Sam, not the defeated Tommy, who is lifted up as a model. What is a bound will to those who can master it in all ways physical, mental, with a dose of sheer determination? The big fat lie of self-sufficiency and self-control over sinful nature makes itself known when the all-star Captain Cahill finds himself in a state of total depravity, indirectly described by one critic as a “shattering of the illusion of a godlike autonomy and a reflexive fury at its sudden loss.” Held hostage in a Taliban camp, Cahill attempts to save his own life and win freedom from his desert prison by succumbing to the Taliban-provoked murder of one of his own soldiers. In a gut wrenching, watch-through-your-fingers kind of torture scene, Cahill’s clubbing of his colleague brings about his own ‘death’ as well. The spilled blood of his soldier and friend is now a white flag of surrender—he cannot bear the weight of the grief, guilt, and shame that have come from his own hands. He cannot fulfill the law of perfection, nor can he rightfully obey the acceptable behaviors and code of war when his own life is at stake.
Though he escapes alive, Cahill understandably tells no one of this act upon returning home—and over time, he crumbles beneath the weight of the secret. He is now gaunt, volatile, always accusatory, both of himself and others. He finally explodes during a nighttime encounter with his wife, Grace. It is here that we find the harkening cry of self-awareness, reminiscent of Paul’s letter to the Romans, “Do you know what I can do with these hands, Grace?” he screams. And later, looking his accusers square in the eye (literally, the Law before him!), he shouts “I’m no hero! Do you know what I’ve done?”
This is the moment in all of us where we doubt grace, both as human beings who doubt the reality of God’s grace, and as Captain Cahill, who doubts the love of his wife, Grace. Could it possibly endure in the place of my pain? Well, this is precisely the place where it begins. Failure is the price of admission here, and for Natalie Portman, as Grace, to truly shine, her husband must completely and utterly fail. For us, too, we must fail, completely fail, to encounter the Goodness that is not the deserving kind.
Given the environment of war that is ours, whether at home or abroad, who is the real enemy here? Most viewers, at first glance, think Jim Sheridan’s film is an anti-war commentary, pinning the enemy as “the men with the beards” (Cahill’s daughter), or the ne’er-do-well, black-sheep brother Tommy who can’t straighten up and fly right if his life depended on it. Through the lens of grace, though, the real enemy-occupied-territory is the treacherous land of the human heart. Through the lens of grace, this is more than an exposé on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder; it also commits its viewers to the same diagnosis. We recognize ourselves in these characters. Point fingers at the decorated Marine Captain, the drunkard brother, the rebel leader holding you captive, and the film surmises that you, too, are one of them. Unable to fulfill our own standards of good behavior, of humane warfare, indeed of God’s Law, perhaps the real enemy isn’t the “men with the beards.” AA says it best, “Every morning, I wake up, look the enemy dead in the eye…then I shave him.”
At movie’s end and at the cusp of admission of total defeat, Grace asks her husband, “Why are you punishing yourself?” The silence is dreadful. Cahill swallows his pride and admits in one breath, “I did it. I killed him.” No condemnation, no judgement—just Grace standing there. Grace is most active in our surrender, and truly at its richest when we are at our poorest. Thus, when Paul asks, ‘Who will rescue us from this body of death?’ — or in the words of Cahill’s father “Who’s gonna stand up and testify for you when you’re dead?” — the answer has been given. Indeed, the answer has been given and is still resounding with an eternal pitch: Grace.