Brothers, wartime family drama, rated R, Regal Stadium 14, 424-6296, 3 chiles
Brothers is about deaths. Many kinds of deaths. Physical death, living death, emotional death, slow death, sudden death, death of the spirit, death of illusion, the illusion of death. It’s also about resurrection, but that takes second billing. This is not a movie that accentuates the positive.
Director Jim Sheridan ( In America, In the Name of the Father) and screenwriter David Benioff ( The Kite Runner) have taken Brødre, a 2004 Danish wartime/home-front drama by Susanne Bier and retooled it for the American market. In their version (which is said to hew closely to the structure of the original) we meet the Cahill family at a crossroads: good son Sam (Tobey Maguire), a captain in the Marines and devoted family man with a wife and two kids, is about to ship out for his third tour of duty in Afghanistan, while bad son Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal) is being released from prison on parole for armed robbery. There’s an awkward family reunion at which their father, Hank (Sam Shepard), a Marine lifer, makes it caustically clear which of the two is the favorite son. Sam’s wife, Grace (Natalie Portman), isn’t crazy about her prodigal brother-in-law either.
Right away we have a little death (Sam’s departure) and a little rebirth (Tommy’s homecoming). The next death, the big one, comes with the news that Sam has been killed in
a helicopter crash in Afghanistan. The movies are filled these days with scenes of two crisply uniformed messengers of death arriving to deliver bad news. (See The Messenger for a military example and Up in the Air for the corporate model of economic death by layoff.) Grace gets the news and deals with the shattering of her world with a dignity that does justice to her name.
Tommy, the consummate screw-up, tries to rise to the occasion. He is alive, Sam is dead, and it doesn’t take a doctorate in family relations to realize that there is hardly anyone who doesn’t think it should have been the other way around. Tommy is the kind of guy who always seems to have the same scraggly growth of beard on his handsome chin, but we can tell from the start that he’s not really a bad guy. In fact, it’s hard to picture him actually perpetrating the stickup that terrorized a poor bank clerk out of several years of sleep and sent Tommy up the river. He seems more the type to get drunk and disturb the peace. But he tries, at first ineptly but then with more success, to pitch in and take care of his fallen brother’s family. It’s a rebirth. Gradually Grace thaws toward her scapegrace brother-in-law, the two little girls grow to love their Uncle Tommy, and they all develop a bond. With Sam dead, we begin to speculate on just how full that bond will grow.
The problem is, Sam isn’t dead. We know this almost immediately; as the movie cuts back and forth between the Afghan mountains and the home front, we in the audience follow Sam’s capture, along with another member of his platoon, by Taliban guerrillas. We see their imprisonment in a dry well in the mountains and their unspeakable treatment at the hands of their captors. Ultimately, Sam returns home alive, a hero, but with his soul in shreds and his humanity crushed. A rebirth and another death. How this all plays out is the business of the movie.
Brothers deals with the hidden mortality of war, the deaths that go unrecorded because the deceased are still alive and outwardly functioning. In its various forms and degrees, posttraumatic stress in returning soldiers destroys marriages and careers, ruins friendships and families, and causes actual or virtual suicides. It’s hard to go off to kill and see your buddies being killed and return the same person who went away. Tina ( Jenny Wade), a casual date Tommy brings to a birthday party, gives voice to this uncomfortable truth, but nobody wants to hear it.
This movie’s production is solid, and the cast is excellent. Maguire shrinks from the strutting rooster who went to war into a scrawny, wild-eyed bantam. Portman brings maturity and dignity to her role, and Gyllenhaal warms the picture with his charm, even if he doesn’t make us believe in Tommy’s dangerous past. Best of all are the two little girls, Isabelle (Bailee Madison) and Maggie (Taylor Geare), who break your heart with their unaffected innocence and truth.
The problem with Brothers is that it doesn’t break your heart enough. The omniscient view we in the audience see of the big picture mitigates the impact of what the players are going through, and our emotions are seldom deeply engaged. It’s surprising how often a screenplay delivers an observation that sums up its shortcomings. Here that line falls to Grace. “I can’t feel it,” she says of Sam’s death. “Shouldn’t I be able to feel it?”
Kin flick: Tobey Maguire and Jake Gyllenhaal
Amazing Grace: Natalie Portman with Bailee Madison, left, and Taylor Geare