Director: Jim Sheridan
Starring: Tobey Maguire, Natalie Portman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Sam Shepard, Clifton Collins, Jr, Mare Winningham
Running Time: 105 min.
★★★ (out of ★★★★)
Over the past few years viewers have endured more than their fair share of films dealing directly or indirectly with the war in Afghanistan. With Brothers we have a first: Overseas torture mixed with soapy melodrama on the home front. But how sad it is it that I find this approach preferable to having more political propaganda pushed on me by Hollywood? The first and second hour of this film seem penned by different writers, the tone is all over the map, the casting is off and yet somehow the film comes together and works. And it works because the movie knows exactly what's it's trying to do and does it, foregoing cheap sentimentality. After a rough start where you're not exactly sure the direction things are going in, it makes a sharp left turn wherein two unbearably tense scenes and one frightening performance define the entire film. While I wouldn't be eager to partake in another viewing and it's about as subtle as a sledgehammer to the head, the script honestly explore its ideas without deteriorating into the love triangle it was advertised as.
Just as Marine Sam Cahill (Tobey Maguire) prepares to embark on another tour of duty overseas, his "black sheep" younger brother Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal) is released from prison after serving time for armed robbery. Sam's wife and high school sweetheart, Grace (Natalie Portman) with whom he has two daughters (played by Bailee Madison and Taylor Grace Geare), can't stand Tommy's reckless behavior, nor can his disapproving father (Sam Shepard) who constantly belittles him for not measuring up to his big brother. Then word comes that Sam's helicopter was shot down and he died. In actuality, he's taken as a POW and is being tortured in a mountain village. Back home, the bond between Grace and Tommy grows over their mutual loss, at least until they receive the shocking news that Sam is alive. But he returns a shell of his former self, psychologically destroyed by his experience and carrying a secret that's eating away at him with guilt. Now he has to learn to how re-connect with his daughters and deal with the developing relationship between Grace and his brother.
The first hour is very off putting. It starts with the familiar story of the screw-up little brother getting out of prison, complete with one of those stereotypical military dads (played here by Sam Shephard) who loves one son and hates the other. Scenes of overseas combat and torture you'd expect to see in a film like Babel or The Hurt Locker are interspersed with a family soap opera back home that at first glance seems like it belongs on the Lifetime channel. But the second half irons this problem out and it at least becomes clear why this approach had to be used, even if part of me still thinks it may have been more effective to show less of it. It's obvious from the casting and the heavy emphasis on the infidelity plot point in the trailers that the primary goal was to pack as many females into the theater as possible to clean up at the box office.
Luckily, the trailers were a complete misrepresentation and the film ends up being more interested in how war can psychologically transform someone to a point where they're no longer recognizable to even those closest to them. Despite what the teasers indicate, not much occurs romantically between Tommy and Grace, but one of the more realistic details of the film is that the returning Sam senses "something" happened while he was gone. No one even has to say anything. He just knows. Whether it's from watching a lot of movies like this or just the fact that his wife's Natalie Portman, he's able to put two and two together. That's believable.
Coming home eerily resembling a zombie and with twenty pounds missing from his already slender frame, Tobey Maguire owns every scene he's in. He's like a ticking time bomb waiting to go off at the slightest provocation, making you believe that in a sense Sam really did die in Afghanistan, only to be replaced by this empty shell of a man. He's so scarred from his experience that intimate, emotional contact with anyone is impossible. He can't communicate with his wife anymore on any level and his daughters are scared to death of him, wondering aloud what's happened to their daddy. There's a scene at the dinner table during a birthday party that's just unbearable in the amount of suspense created. The tension mounts and builds for minutes until the situation just explodes and as impressive as Maguire is in it, young Bailee Madison as his daughter is right there to match him. I really liked how she outwardly shows affection to her father but behind her eyes you can see just how terrified she is of him.
You could argue all three actors are miscast, chosen for their star power with little consideration given to whether they were even right for the parts. This continues what's starting to become a popular trend these days in movies: Casting too young. The hiring of actors who for whatever reason (whether they're not old enough or don't act or look old enough) aren't credible in the more age experienced roles they're being asked to play. Maguire and Gyllenhaal were at least the RIGHT wrong actors for this because they're talented enough to fake it until they make it and are more than capable of meeting the challenges put in front of them with this story. Portman isn't. I know everyone thinks she's this great beauty who can do no wrong but for me she just continues her long streak of mere adequacy, done no favors here in a part that's all wrong for her.
Portman just isn't believable as a mother with two children that age, nor is she any more credible as a grieving widow struggling with feelings for her brother-in-law. When Grace opens up about her high school days in an intimate U2 themed fireside chat with Tommy, Portman can't hold up her end of the deal because she just isn't skilled enough at conveying the kind of person Grace would have been. Instead, I just kept picturing her face buried in books at the school library. If they had to cast in this age range a better choice for the part would have been someone like Katie Holmes, who would be more credible as a mother and we know from past films she at least shares the necessary chemistry with Maguire. Portman fails to ignite even the slightest spark with either actor. In her defense, she does get better as the film wears on and the focus shifts, or maybe I just eventually gave up and accepted how ill fit she was for the role. Luckily, Maguire and Gyllenhaal are so good in this that they carry Portman through so that she doesn't seriously harm the picture.
Gyllenhaal is actually less miscast than stretching out of his usual comfort zone with a darker character, which he pulls off. Even though Tommy's a black sheep you don't want to make him too much of a jerk and he does a great job walking that line. While Maguire isn't very believable either as a parent it hardly matters because his performance as a raging psychotic is so riveting that it holds all the loose ends together. Those who understandably forgot while he was wasting his time and talent making the Spider-Man films can be reminded how gifted an actor he really is here. I'm relieved it only took him only one film to get right back to business.
When it all finally comes to a head in one climactic final showdown there's legitimate doubt how it will end and whether everyone in this family will survive. I was surprised how thoughtful and restrained the ending was considering all that came before, but thankfully everything wasn't too nicely tied up in a bow for us either. Director Jim Sheridan (who's no stranger to family dramas) and writer David Benioff deserve credit for tackling the issue head on and not backing down. While watching Brothers I was reminded of 2008's Stop-Loss, which also dealt with the emotional trauma of soldiers trying to reaclimate themselves to normal life, but fell victim to its own political grandstanding. This pulls some strings and pushes a few buttons, but emotional grandstanding is just what this topic needed. Too many movies dealing with the after effects of war have played it safe, cautious of offending anyone or going too far over the top. Brothers deserves credit for at least having the guts to provoke a strong reaction.