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Review: Brothers

By  · Published on December 4th, 2009

If there were ever a milieu made for Jim Sheridan, a military town amid the current war in Iraq is it. Throughout his prestigious career, in movies as different as In the Name of the Father and In America, the Irish filmmaker has specialized in portraits of families under siege and the male psychology pushed to the brink. In Brothers, the David Benioff scripted remake of the 2004 Susanne Bier film, the two elements blend with such natural precision it’s a wonder Sheridan hadn’t set out to chronicle a small sliver of the American home front before.

In a narrative rife with emotions both heightened and subtle, Sheridan and Benioff zero in on an everyday military family facing an all too common burden. Sam Cahill (Tobey Maguire) leaves his wife Grace (Natalie Portman) and his daughters behind when he’s sent to Iraq. His body disappears after a terrible helicopter crash, leading to the dreaded sight of somber officers approaching the front door of the Cahill home. As Grace tries to rebuild her life, she grows closer to her brother-in-law Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal), a former deadbeat recently released from prison and struggling to find his path in life.

Fans of the original know that’s only half the story. Here, Sam survives the crash and faces a harrowing ordeal after being kidnapped by terrorists. Rather awkwardly, the picture cuts between the debasement he endures and the healing process undergone by his family at home. It’s a jarring amalgamation of tones and styles – Sam’s journey has a gritty documentary feel while the domestic scenes are rendered in subdued, classical emotional tones. Yet there’s enough compelling content in both narratives for the movie to maintain momentum as it hurls towards a third act rife with high drama.

Sheridan casts Maguire in a distant, rigid tough guy loner part that has more in common with Peter Parker than one might think. The actor never completely gets away from his tendency to overdo things with his face, contorting it wildly and opening his eyes so wide they seem ready to pop out, but he navigates the character’s eventual mental disintegration with aplomb. Portman and Gyllenhaal are best, however, and that they develop such easy, loving chemistry in their scenes together is a major coup for the filmmakers, the emotional engine that drives the story.

The connection they share is formed out of sincere, quiet moments that eroticize the stabilizing presence Tommy provides and Grace’s appreciation for the bond that develops between him and the kids. She’s drawn to his gentleness. While Sam was a stiff, distant taskmaster with everything figured out, his brother’s a childlike soul still searching for his direction in life. He’s refused to do his part to uphold the Cahill military legacy, much to the chagrin of his father Hank (Sam Shepard), and the film opens with Sam picking him up after he’s completed a prison sentence for robbing a bank. As Tommy starts spending more time with the family, a transformation takes place. “It gets you thinking,” he says of the time he’s spent with his nieces and sister-in-law and Gyllenhaal, with his big eyes, expressive face and earnest, emphatic demeanor makes it clear that Tommy’s found his purpose.

The film turns on the jarring realization that Sam’s return threatens this domestic bliss and thwarts the formation of this new, more natural family unit. Yet the final act of the picture is handled gracefully, far from the lurid love triangle melodrama the ads seem to promise. The screenplay reconstitutes Sam’s suspicions of Tommy and Grace as a symptom of the broader, deeper mental anguish of a man driven mad by questioning his sense of self and the moral code he values. Sheridan captures the domestic discord with an eye towards the internal tensions brewing in his three protagonists, unfurling their layered relations with patience and a keen perception of the weight of what’s left unsaid. As those submerged emotions pour out during the film’s volatile climax, it’s hard to be anything less than completely riveted.

The Upside: Director Jim Sheridan fills the movie with compelling drama, both heightened and subtle. Jake Gyllenhaal and Natalie Portman are great.

The Downside: The cross-cutting between the two major storylines is often jarring and far from seamless.

On the Side: The film is a remake of Danish director Susanne Bier’s 2004 film, which starred Connie Nielsen in the Natalie Portman role.