The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he
brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and
set me down in the middle of a valley; it was
full of bones. He led me all round them; there
were very many lying in the valley, and they
were very dry. He said to me, ‘Mortal, can
these bones live?’ I answered, ‘O Lord God,
Director Jim Sheridan and scriptwriter David Benioff’s powerful story coming out of the Afghan War centers on a “bad” brother and a “good” brother, Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Sam Cahill (Tobey Maguire). In fact Tommy is just getting out of jail when Sam, a captain in the Army is about to be deployed to Afghanistan—for the fourth time. Their ex-soldier father (Sam Shepard) makes no bones of which sons he favors.
The film moves back and forth between the horrendous ordeal of Sam when he is captured by Taliban insurgents and Tommy and Sam’s wife Grace (Natalie Portman) and their two daughters. Tommy, striving to clean up his life despite his father’s discouraging attitude, helps Grace cope with household repairs and enjoys being uncle to the two young girls. When the Army informs Grace that her husband has died in combat, Tommy offers support but tries not to impose himself. As he helps Grace and the girls his relationship with his father begins to improve. But he spends so much time with Grace, that slowly they are drawn to each other.
Then word arrives that Sam is alive. When he returns, it is apparent that he has physically survived his captivity, but his spirit is deeply troubled, indeed, tormented by guilt over a decision that no human being should be forced to make . Sam is crippled emotionally, and his gratitude toward his brother for helping his wife and children while he was away turns into suspicion and hostility, threatening to explode in violence.
I know nothing of Susanne Bier’s 2004 Danish film from upon which this film is based. I do know that this is a memorable one exploring the cost of war inflicted upon those who sometimes must do terrible things to survive. When they return home they have to struggle with the results of what was done during wartime, the consequences enveloping their family and friends as well. The question posed by God to the ancient prophet in the Valley of Dry Bones is very much like the one that concludes this parable of loyalty, grief, and the necessity of clinging to hope.
For reflection/Discussion This contains spoilers.
1. How is this film similar to the parable Jesus told about two sons and their father? And yet, how is their father very different from the one in the parable?
2. Does the father attempt to hide his preference for the “good son” ? Where have you seen a parent making a similar mistake? Perhaps in your own family?
3. Describe what screenwriters sometimes call the “character arc” of the three men. How does that of Sam and Tommy movie in opposite directions? How does the father change?
4. What did you expect to develop between Tommy and Grace? How does this film show restraint in comparison to other Hollywood films with a romantic theme?
5. How did you feel when Sam was forced to make his horrendous choice? Can we really blame him for his decision? Do you think that anyone you know would have had the courage and faith to decide differently?
6. What has happened to Sam’s soul as a result of his choice? Is he really alive after this? How does this affect the way he sees his brother and his wife? How are his subsequent actions similar to what New Testament writers describe as demon possession?
7. At what points in the film do you see grace? Especially toward the end? How are Sam’s last words about living again similar to the question posed to Elijah? How is the film a better film for not giving us an answer?