Brothers Buries Its Most Interesting Themes
- Friday, December 04, 2009
DVD Release Date: March 23, 2010
Theatrical Release Date: December 4, 2009
Rating: R (for language and some disturbing violent content)
Run Time: 110 min.
Director: Jim Sheridan
Actors: Tobey Maguire, Jake Gyllenhaal, Natalie Portman, Sam Shepard, Mare Winningham, Bailee Madison, Taylor Geare, Clifton Collins Jr., Patrick Flueger, Carey Mulligan
Just in time for Christmas—and for President Barack Obama's newly announced strategy for the war in Afghanistan—comes Brothers, director Jim Sheridan's (In America) remake of a Danish drama about sibling and generational conflict among one military family.
The commercial prospects for this Afghanistan War drama would appear dim. The Christmas season already has seen one high-toned, grim film—director John Hillcoat's adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's The Road—that many will perceive as a "downer." A film about family strife and post traumatic stress disorder likely isn't the most desirable subject for seasonal fare. Aren't the challenges of family harmony in each potential audience member's home enough to contend with without voluntarily paying to watch fictional versions of the same?
Adding to the film's perilous financial outlook is the well-documented failure of films centered on the wars in the Middle East. Not even the Iraq War drama The Hurt Locker, which received exceptional reviews, could break out of the limited-release ghetto, mustering less than $13 million in total so far (Oscar nominations might change that).
The makers of Brothers, aware of these hurdles, have poured on the star power to grab the attention of those who might not be inclined to give their film a chance. Tobey "Spider-Man" Maguire stars as Sam Cahill, a Marine husband and father who is called to Afghanistan, but not before he helps his ex-con brother, Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal) readjust to life outside of prison.
Tommy's indiscretions aren't detailed, but a meal scene early in Brothers lays out the family dynamic. Dad (Sam Shepard) is a Vietnam vet who's proud of Sam's service, but disdainful of the wayward Tommy. The boys' mother (Mare Winningham) expresses her concerns through prayer, asking for the Lord to protect Sam during his tour in the Middle East, but the troubled Tommy looks to be a weight around the family's neck, someone who exposes strife and past hurts and whose prospects for a successful post-prison life appear dim. It doesn't help that Sam's wife, Grace (Natalie Portman), doesn't care for Tommy and has expressed those feelings to her kids.
One of the film's pleasant surprises is that it doesn't become a story about Tommy's recidivism, but moves instead toward his redemption. When Sam's helicopter is shot down in Afghanistan, he's presumed dead. In his absence, Tommy becomes a father figure to Sam's two daughters and grows closer to Grace. Even that, however, would be too easy, too "Hollywood," for this originally Scandinavian story. Brothers has another twist in mind, but that's not to say that the film fully works.
The story becomes one of suspense, according to Alfred Hitchcock's definition of the term: The audience knows something that the characters don't. Namely, that Sam is still alive in Afghanistan, using psychological survival skills to endure his captivity with a fellow American fighter.
The psychological trauma of his treatment by the enemy, capped by a forced, horrific choice Sam must make to ensure his survival, haunt him upon his return to the States. His wife can't get through to him and his daughters prefer Tommy's company to that of their father. Sam hasn't emerged from the psychological cocoon that helped him endure his time as a prisoner of war. He focuses, laser-like, on small tasks like rearranging the china, but that singular focus has a more sinister dimension in his relationship with his wife and brother. He can't stop asking them if they've slept together during the time they thought Sam was deceased.
Unanswered are why the military would report as dead someone who was in captivity, and whom the military eventually rescues (and appears to have been searching for earlier in the film). Also left unsaid is why Sam wasn't provided with the psychological counseling he obviously needed before and after reintegrating into American society.
The film builds to a major confrontation between Sam, Tommy and Grace. It's never unpredictable, but neither is it badly played. Grace's thawing toward Tommy isn't entirely convincing, but that's a script problem that can't be blamed on the actors, most of whom give solid performances. Maguire is respectable if a bit one note—deranged, bug-eyed stares dominate his post-Afghanistan stint—but Gyllenhaal, who has sometimes been the weak link in the excellent films in which he's starred (Zodiac), is note-perfect here. Sad-eyed but tough, he's as convincing when standing up to his emotionally abusive father as he is when giving his brother a tender hug. Best of all is Portman, who's fulfilling the early promise of a career that began two decades ago, but which grew less interesting as she moved into Star Wars blockbusters and misguided period pieces that were poor showcases for her talent.
Brothers' themes of forgiveness and family healing are admirable, but could have been more pronounced. They come across as a bit muted, almost tacked on—casualties of the story's war with itself. It wants to be a thriller first, and a psychologically complex story of family restoration second. That imbalance works against the story's most powerful elements. We need to know more about Grace's gradual acceptance of Tommy as a father figure to her girls after years of disliking him. A few smiling looks out the kitchen window don't cut it. Brothers also could have spent less time on Sam's war-induced trauma, which, though pivotal to the story, doesn't justify the amount of screen time devoted to it.
To the film's credit, the possibility of illicit (albeit unknowingly illicit) romance between Tommy and Grace never comes across as salacious, and the characters resist temptation to a much greater degree than they succumb to it.
It's a tribute to the performances of Gyllenhaal and Portman that the film is able to overcome, to some degree, its narrative weaknesses, but one can only wonder at how much better the film might have been if those weaknesses had been sufficiently addressed before the film's production began.
Questions? Comments? Contact the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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