A film review by Craig J. Koban December 10, 2009
2009, R, 110 mins.
2009, R, 110 mins.
Tommy: Jake Gyllenhaal / Grace: Natalie Portman / Sam: Tobey
Maguire / Hank: Sam Shepard / Elsie: Mare Winningham
Jim Sheridan’s meticulously and brilliantly observed family drama, BROTHERS, belongs on a very short list of recent war films that avoids being a politicized, war-is-hell diatribe and instead is a honest, brutally unflinching, and frequently distressing analysis of how combat inalterably destroys the humanity of returning soldiers.
Actually, Sheridan’s effort – very faithfully remade from
the 2004 Danish film, Brřdre, directed by Susanne Bier – does
not do a lot of smug, arrogant, and annoying sermonizing about the hellish
nature of war; we have all been down that cinematic road before.
Truthfully, BROTHERS is far, far less concerned with war overseas
than it is with how it unavoidable affects the family unit back home both
before and after one’s tour of duty.
to abandon all commentary and political axes to grind about the current
war in Afghanistan
is a masterstroke move, and this allows BROTHERS to focus in on the
personal stories that are sometimes overshadowed by the larger
ramifications of war itself.
have been many films as of late that have focused – with
intermittent success – on how recent wars have had calamitous
effects on soldiers and families back home (RENDITION,
IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH, and LIONS
FOR LAMBS, to name a few), but BROTHERS is perhaps the finest of
the bunch for how intuitively it challenges viewers with the haunting
moral conundrums of its characters, both on the war and home front.
Much like Kimberley Peirce’s inordinately undervalued STOP
BROTHERS steeps itself in a sense of ruthless and brutal realism both with
its depictions of combat and with how combat alters the family dynamic
when the soldier returns from fighting. Yes,
the film does portray war as “hell”, to be sure, but the most
endlessly compelling arc here is how it reveals that the dead are
not the only victims of armed conflicts. The surviving soldiers, once they have escaped death and
return home, must deal with something even darker and more
debilitating: readjusting back to civilian life.
has always been regarded as one of the great actors-directors, and
BROTHERS easily contains a trio of the finest performances of the year:
one is deceptive in its simple and sincere emotional economy; one is
moving for its subtle introspection, and the other is one of initial
congeniality that later morphs into animalistic ferocity by an actor you
may not easily consider for such a towering and haunting portrayal.
What’s key here is that these three performances are the
emotional glue that holds the entire enterprise confidently up, which only
further helps to highlight the film’s most important themes of the power
of family and romantic love as a source that – even during the most
depressing and intense of circumstances – can heal all
of course, is about two siblings, Sam (Tobey Maguire) and Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal)
Cahill. Sam, the eldest of
the pair, is clearly the most responsible, prideful, and morally upright:
He is a proud and honor bound soldier that – as the film opens – has
just returned home from a tour of duty in Afghanistan and is about to return
for another. He is married to
an exquisitely luminous and caring woman, Isabelle (Natalie Portman) and has two well
adjusted, adorable, and well-mannered children, Isabelle (Bailee Madison)
and Maggie (Taylor Geare). Compared
to Sam, Tommy is the black sheep of the family: He has just been released
from prison after serving a sentence for bank robbery and essentially is a disaffected loner
with not much of a future. The
father of the pair (Sam Shepherd, focused, poised, and quietly strong)
rarely wastes a waking moment revealing which son he appreciates and
respects the most, and often-in front of both of them.
Sam departed back to the war, the troubled and impersonal Tommy –
perhaps trying to reclaim some lost self-respect, not to mention trying to
earn the respect of his father – attempts to redeem himself by becoming
a better uncle and brother-in-law to Grace and his nieces.
Grace has never particularly liked Tommy, whom she sees as a
negative influence, but slowly but surely Tommy makes steps towards
gaining her trust. His
relationship with the family is really taken to another level when they
learn the tragic news that Sam has horrifically died in a helicopter crash
while on the call of duty. In reality,
though, Sam and his hometown buddy, Private Joe Willis (Patrick Flueger) have been
captured and taken prisoner by the Taliban.
Depressingly, the family back home is unaware of this.
months pass as the film alternate between Sam's nightmarish experience of
being a POW with the thawing of the relationship between his brother and
his wife back at home. The
more Tommy and Grace spend time together during these months of mutually
mourning, the more they begin to appreciate each other’s company.
That, and Tommy has become a permanent and appreciated figure in
his niece’s lives. One
night, while sharing a quiet and relaxing moment by a fireplace, Tommy and
Grace let their guards slip for a fleeting moment when the sexual tension
between the pair leads to a kiss. Juxtaposed
with this moment is a freakishly disturbing scene where Sam, at gun point,
is forced to make an impossible ethical decision that will either save his
life while killing another innocent person or, if he refuses, being killed
with the other person.
What’s endlessly intriguing about the film is how substantial it
makes the dicey moral quandaries of both Sam and his family back home.
I also found it fascinating how Sheridan never seems to simplistic
answer the question as to whether Tommy and Grace’s intimate moment was
done out of shared grief or out of legitimate sexual attraction or for
a combination of the two.
the film’s trailers have already shown, Sam does indeed save himself and
returns home to the disbelief of his family.
Unfortunately, Sam is not the congenial and easy-going
father/husband that left for war months earlier: his indescribably cruel
ordeal of being a POW has left him aimlessly drifting into fits of crazed,
paranoid delusions coupled with a ferocious temperament.
The more he pathetically attempts to reconnect with everyone back home
the more he loses his grasp of civilian reality, not to mention that he
grows more and more emotionally distant with his wife, kids, and his
brother, whom he has confronted regarding his real relationship with
films as of late have been as intently vigilant of its characters and
performances, and if you want to see acting as good as anything in 2009
look towards two standout scenes: The first involves Sam and Tommy –
while on a bench outside of a skating rink – discussing what happened
when Sam was away. Initially,
Sam’s queries about Grace’s possible infidelity gets a mocking laugh
out of Tommy, but as Sam’s eyes become more intensely focused and his
words more measured with each asking of the question, we see Tommy careful
maneuvering himself away from a truthful answer (the actors' timing here
The second moment occurs during a birthday party where Sam’s
volatile and obsessive mistrust of Grace and Tommy reaches a feverous
Two things stand out with this key moments: (a) how crafty and
resourceful Sheridan is at letting performances build tension and pathos
and (b) how remarkably naturalistic Bailee Madison is as a child actor,
who utterly commands that sad and distressing moment at the birthday table
with a timing and nuance of actors three times her age.
This is an Oscar-nomination-worthy child performance if there ever
other performances – mostly by the main trio of Maguire, Gyllenhaal and
Portman – are also superb and unforgettable.
As San’s devoted wife, Portman plays arguably her most mature and
“grown-up” persona to date and there is rarely a moment in the film
where she does not hold everything in place with her restrained poise,
grace, beauty, and delicate essence of headstrong perseverance (the STAR
WARS prequels, I fear, have shattered her reputation as one of the leading
actresses of her generation, but films like CLOSER,
GARDEN STATE, V
FOR VENDETTA, COLD MOUNTAIN, and now this should alleviate those
concerns). Equally refined - if not a bit
trickier - is Gyllenhaal’s portrayal of Tommy, who must
portray his character's wounded pride of being a letdown to his father while
later displaying a newfound genuineness and compassion towards Grace and
her family. Gyllenhaal’s
uneasy scenes with Sam Shepherd’s father figure are some of the film’s
most quietly stimulating and emotionally charged: Shepherd’s work is so
well timed, so well underplayed, and so affecting: a lesser actor would
have made him a villainous paternal figure of hate, but Shepherd does a
bravura job of highlighting this character’s texture as a spiteful,
flawed, stubborn, but vulnerable man.
The largest performance shock of BROTHERS may come from Tobey Maguire himself, a gifted actor in his own right whom has done stellar work so often before (mostly for playing quirky, reticent, and agreeably mild mannered nice guys). In BROTHERS he reaches whole other depths of darkness and depravity in what I think will be remembered as one of the great portrayals of paranoid-fuelled self-destruction. After being the victim of months of Taliban-inflicted physical and mental trauma, and bearing an overwhelming level of personal guilt no human being could healthily adjust to, Sam’s readjustment back home is tragic, shocking, and depressingly unhinged. Maguire coveys all of the bottled up madness of this piece of damaged goods in many scenes primarily with just his eyes and a calm spoken tenor, which conveys the horror and delusion mindset with an icy and scary precision. Maguire has never been so effective, so frightening, or so commanding, and when he finally lets out his entire wounded psyche near the film’s intense and chilling climax, it clearly becomes a toweringly anguished performance for the ages. It'll be very hard to think of him as Peter Parker ever again.
It should be noted that BROTHERS is not just unremittingly depressing; the film is bathed with hostility, deep mistrust, irreparable emotional wounds, and crisis, but there is a small glimmer of potential hope in the story when it concludes. The film is, no doubt, absolutely heartbreaking for how its shows the slow and dreary implosion of the family unit because of war’s effects on all parties, as well as for how honestly and unflinchingly it rightfully shows post-traumatic stress as a disorder that has no easy solutions. Most importantly, Sheridan never shies away from this bleak material, but his ultimate goal, I surmise, is to show that even during the midst of darkest despair, the bonds of family can only continue to survive with the nobility of mutual forgiveness and understanding from all willing parties. BROTHERS, as a result, is a war drama of such uncommon intimacy, unnerving and disquieting power, and one where the personal stories take precedent over those of the battlefield. It’s one of 2009’s most contemplative, intoxicating, carefully measured, and deeply immersing films