Boasting impressive performances from Tobey Maguire and Jake Gyllenhaal, Brothers tells a straightforward story about complicated human relationships. Its well-honed drama doesn’t offer big ideas or easy answers, but simply looks at the tricky, sometimes unsolvable emotional issues raised by soldiers at war and families in conflict.
The wartime post-traumatic stress and domestic drama in Brothers are far from comforting or soothing, but it is a nice change of pace to watch a film that doesn’t feel like it wants anything from you. It doesn’t demand your praise or that you be suitably dazzled. It’s not out to change the face of cinema or tip you upside down and shake every last sentiment out of you. It simply has a small, straightforward story to tell about some human beings in a very complicated and painful place. Yes, it’s an actors’ showcase of sorts, but with Jake Gyllenhaal and Tobey Maguire in the leads as prodigal brothers, it feels more like actors coming into their prime, rather than old show horses taking a victory lap.
A remake of the 2005 Danish film Brødre from Susanne Bier, Brothers is helmed by Irish director Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot, In the Name of the Father, In America) from a script by David Benioff (The 25th Hour, Troy, The Kite Runner). It follows the Cahills, a middle-class military family living in a New Mexico base town in 2007. Sam Cahill (Maguire) is a captain in the Marines, about to ship off for his fourth tour in Afghanistan, once again leaving behind his wife (Natalie Portman) and their two mostly angelic young daughters. Sam’s going-away party also coincides with his brother Tommy (Gyllenhaal) getting released from prison after a stint for an attempted bank robbery. The Cahill father (Sam Shepherd) is a retired Marine himself and there are no surprises as to which son he favors.
While the extended Cahill family has its share of unspoken dysfunctions, Sam’s unwavering devotion to both his wife and daughters and to his duty as a soldier is the ram rod that holds it all together. With their son and husband and father the War Hero to rally around, the family can carry on through whatever tensions n’er-do-well Tommy’s release stirs up. Except then Sam’s helicopter is shot down soon after his arrival back in Afghanistan and he’s declared dead. As his wife, brother, and father grieve (and sometimes lash out) back home, we learn early on that Sam is in fact alive, held prisoner in a mountain pit and tortured both physically and mentally by the Taliban.
Thinking Sam dead, Tommy finds redemption and maturity in stepping up to care for his brother’s widow and children. It’s only after Sam is pushed past the limits of most human emotional endurance that he’s rescued and returned back home to his wife and kids. And though he’s physically in one piece, Sam comes back wiring his guilt far too tight, working to repress what he went through, and barely holding himself together by way of the Marine Code of Stoicism.
Sheridan may have an increasingly heavy hand for melodrama, but he also possesses a sharp eye for main-street details: the bars, the stores, the parks, the American flags that serve double duty in sincerity and irony. Brothers fits into a sub-genre with both older films such as Coming Home and The Deer Hunter and newer offerings like Stop-Loss, The Hurt Locker, and the recent The Messenger. It’s certainly about what the horrors of war do to any human who endures them—no matter how “heroic” or “brave” they may seem. (And how those very words—hero, brave—are often used too easily to pave over all sorts of pain and doubt.) But while war may be the subject and post-traumatic stress may be the problem, Brothers’ theme is more about being human and broken and trying to fit back together with your loved ones.
Brothers is a solid melodrama, raised above its heavy handedness by very nice performances from Maguire and Gyllenhaal. Portman, sadly, is the weak link here—she can be a fine actress, but her skill at bringing dazzling eccentrics to life becomes a liability when she’s asked to play a regular person. While Benioff’s script leaves her stranded in the middle, mostly reacting to the two brothers, Portman still comes off too shiny, too defiant and poised to convey a real person’s loss—she never seems truly worn down and shattered by her situation.
Maguire’s character gets the big, showy scenes of torment and angst. With his bulging eyes and straining neck muscles, the actor may occasionally overstep the bounds of subtlety, but he also does an admirable job with the unsettling stillness that suggests Sam is barely holding it together.
Both Maguire and Gyllenhaal share those big eyes that tilt toward the manic and haunted, gaunt faces that warm up instantly when they smile–their casting as brothers is the film’s best effect. But it’s Gyllenhaal who really seems to step into his own as an adult actor here. (Even as the character aged, his Jack Twist in Brokeback Mountain never quite felt like a grown up, and his own performance as a wartime Marine in Jarhead ended up more a cipher than a character.) With Gyllenhaal’s touch, Tommy’s quiet struggle to step out of his past life of aimless, reckless indifference nicely balances out Sam’s louder, more intense demons.
Sam Shepard also does fine supporting work, seeming to have directly grown into his own character’s wounded pain by way of every role he’s played over the past three decades. Mare Winningham doesn’t have a whole lot to do as Shepard’s wife other than make those of us who grew up with her in the ‘80s feel old. But a special notice goes out to Clifton Collins, Jr., whose low-key, assured work as Sam’s commanding officer is a welcome surprise to those who may only recognize the long-time character actor from recent wacky sidekick roles in movies like Crank 2, Extract, and Boondock Saints 2.
For all its news-headline timeliness, Brothers doesn’t dig into whether or not the U.S. should still be in the mountains of Afghanistan, nor does it point fingers at the Armed Forces for not taking better care of soldiers returning with PTSD. Instead it looks at a group of people being both pushed together and pulled apart by the sorts of emotional issues so many families—military or not—endure. And unlike many “Awards”-type films Brothers doesn’t offer up contrived feel-good solutions just because it’s nearing the two-hour mark–real-life stories don’t end, not all the problems get solved. Instead life and people just keep carrying on, trying to deal with their issues and each other.