Brothers (United States, 2009)December 01, 2009
Brothers is arguably the most successful remake of a foreign film since Martin Scorsese reworked Infernal Affairs into The Departed and won the Oscar. By remaining rigorously faithful to Susanne Bier's 2004 Danish feature, Brodre, screenwriter David Benioff and director Jim Sheridan manage to retain the themes and psychological nuances of the original while opening it up to a wider English-speaking audience. Subtle differences in the way the actors interpret the characters and small omissions, additions, and changes allow Brothers to stand on its own. This is a powerful, disturbing film that explores common cinematic territory - the ability of war to destroy the individual - without seeming clichéd or familiar.
The movie opens by introducing us to the title characters. Sam Cahill (Tobey Maguire) is the older brother. A responsible, upright man, he married his high school sweetheart, Grace (Natalie Portman), and has two bright, happy children: Isabelle (Bailee Madison) and Maggie (Taylor Geare). He is a captain in the Marines and is about to return to Afghanistan for another tour of duty - a place that feels to him "almost like home." Meanwhile, Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal) has just been released from prison, where he spent time for a bank robbery. He's the black sheep of the family - perpetually drunk and drifting without a rudder. His father, Hank (Sam Shepard), views Tommy with thinly-veiled contempt, wishing he could be more like his brother.
Tragedy strikes shortly after Sam's return to duty. He is involved in a helicopter crash and is presumed dead. The news stuns Grace and Tommy and has the unintended consequence of bringing them closer together. Driven by the need to become a better person, he "substitutes" for Sam, becoming a father-figure to the girls and a confidante for Grace. Sexual tension develops between Grace and Tommy, but it is unclear to either whether it's the result of genuine romantic feelings or shared grief. The older brother, however, is not dead. He and one of his men, Joe Willis (Patrick Flueger), are captured by the Taliban, held in confinement for months, and tortured. When Sam is finally rescued, he is a changed man. Grace is overjoyed at the news of his imminent return, but she does not realize the man she loved and married effectively died in Afghanistan.
Brothers has no political axe to grind and, unlike many films that have used the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as a backdrop, it has no agenda to pursue beyond the basic one of depicting the dehumanizing consequences of conflict (any conflict, not just today's). The film is antiwar in a general sense, not because it disagrees with the underlying reasons for the war but because it sees a human toll that often goes unreported and unnoticed. News reports would see Sam's story as miraculous - a brave hero originally thought dead being recovered and returned to the bosom of his loving wife and daughters. The reality is grim. Sam's psyche has been shredded; nowhere is this more profoundly obvious than when he finds himself unable to reconnect with Isabelle and Maggie and haunted by a belief that Grace and Tommy are having an affair. He is a broken, dangerous man - the kind of person who has been shaped into a weapon but no longer has a clear focus.
By rising above politics and simplistic notions about whether the current war is "right" or "wrong," Brothers is able to offer honest, compelling drama. The film is not unremittingly bleak; in fact, impulses of love and caring define all of the characters in one way or another. The situation is heartbreaking but Sheridan does not flinch in depicting the events that break and remake Sam from the loving man he was into the cold shell who returns. The film ends not mired in bleakness but on a well-earned note of hope.
Brothers is defined by strong performances, as is necessary for any drama of this magnitude to achieve success. Natalie Portman, once deemed to be one of cinema's finest child actors, has floundered in recent years with unremarkable appearances in films like The Other Boleyn Girl, Love and Other Impossible Pursuits, and Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium. In Brothers, she recaptures the consistency and ability to inhabit a character that has defined her best work. Tobey Maguire, who is essentially forced to play two different parts, has the film's most challenging role and rises to the occasion. No one will think of him as Peter Parker here, even though that alter-ego looms large over his career. Jake Gyllenhaal is also solid as Tommy, who has his own demons to fight - albeit ones not as monstrous as Sam's. Excellent support is provided by Sam Shepard as the military Dad whose past has laid the seeds for the present, and Bailee Madison and Taylor Geare, two of the screen's most unaffected recent child actors.
The reason Brothers works as well as it does is because it takes the time to introduce the characters and never loses sight that the story is about their changes and how those alterations impact their relationships with others. The movie's message emerges naturally through the narrative - it is not represented by a tacked-on homily or awkward speech. Sheridan does not say war is evil, but he makes it clear that the dead aren't the only casualties of conflicts. Just because a soldier is back on the ground in the United States does not mean he or she is "safe." When Sam pleads with his commanding officer to return to Afghanistan following his "resurrection," his reasons are clear - the only connection he retains is to the ugliness half-a-world away. He seeks expiation, perhaps through death, and it's something he cannot find in the pleasantly domestic setting represented by his wife, children, and brother. This is a rich, thoughtful, challenging motion picture, and one of 2009's best.
Brothers (United States, 2009)
Cast: Tobey Maguire, Jake Gyllenhaal, Natalie Portman, Sam Shepard, Mare Winningham, Bailee Madison, Taylor Geare, Patrick Flueger, Carey Mulligan
Screenplay: David Benioff, based on Brodre by Susanne Bier and Anders Thomas Jensen
Cinematography: Frederick Elmes
Music: Thomas Newman
U.S. Distributor: Lionsgate