A film review by Craig J. Koban December 10, 2009

Rank:  #14


2009, R, 110 mins.


Tommy: Jake Gyllenhaal / Grace: Natalie Portman / Sam: Tobey Maguire / Hank: Sam Shepard / Elsie: Mare Winningham

Directed by Jim Sheridan / Screenplay by David Benioff, based on the motion picture “Brothers,” written by Susanne Bier and Anders Thomas Jensen

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.  Sheridan’s choice 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.  

There 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 LOSS, 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. 

Sheridan 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 wounds. 

BROTHERS, 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. 

With 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. 

Several 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.   

As 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 Grace. 

Few 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 is flawless).  The second moment occurs during a birthday party where Sam’s volatile and obsessive mistrust of Grace and Tommy reaches a feverous crescendo.  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 was one. 

The 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

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