Critics praise the performances in Brothers, particularly Tobey Maguire's, who, it seems, they underestimated after seeing Spider-Man. As a whole, however, reviewers say the domestic war drama Brothers falls short of the Danish film it's based on.
The film, opening today, is very similar to writer and director Susan Bier's 2004 film Brodre, but critics say that in its American adaptation screenwriter David Benioff (who wrote 25th Hour... and X-Men Origins: Wolverine) and director Jim Sheridan (In the Name of the Father, In America), fail to capture the psychological intensity of the original. Both films focus on what happens to a soldier's family when they are mistakenly told he died in combat. (Sadly, the war in Afghanistan has gone on for so long that five years later, the new version didn't even have to change the war the main character is fighting in.)
In Brothers, Sam Cahill (Tobey Maguire), a Captain in the Marines, returns to Afghanistan for his fourth tour of duty and is presumed dead when his Black Hawk helicopter is shot down. While Sam got good grades in high school, married Grace (Natalie Portman), his cheerleader girlfriend after high school, and had two adorable daughters (Bailee Madison and Taylor Geare), his brother Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal) has always been the black sheep of the family. When the film begins, Tommy has just been released from a three year prison sentence for armed bank robbery; his Vietnam vet father Hank (Sam Shepard) makes it clear that he wishes Tommy could be more like his older brother and, when the family gets the news that Sam is dead, Tommy tries to become a better man and take care of his brother's family. His acts of kindness, unfortunately, backfire: Sam's a different man when he returns from being tortured by the Taliban, and he begins to suspect that Grace and Tommy had an affair while he was gone.
The reviews for the film are mixed. While one critic calls it "the most successful remake of a foreign film since Martin Scorsese reworked Infernal Affairs into The Departed," others say the story takes too long to set up and never really comes together. Natalie Portman manages to create a nuanced character, even though her role as the stereotypical grieving wife is underwritten. Like many recent films about Iraq and Afghanistan, the movie doesn't take a political stance on armed conflict, hoping to simply focus on the impact that war has on soldiers and their families. Brothers however, may not be complex or compelling enough to accomplish that task. Below, the reviews:
Brothersis 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 Brothersto 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.
Brothershas 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," Brothersis 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.
Reviewing Ms. Bier's Brothers in this newspaper, Stephen Holden referred to the ideas of the psychoanalyst R. D. Laing, who studied shifting roles and identities within family systems. The difference between that film and the remake may be that while Ms. Bier's movie evokes psychological theories, Mr. Sheridan's seems to be applying them... Mr. Gyllenhaal and Ms. Portman, whose role is frustratingly if unsurprisingly underwritten, draw nuances out of the charged air between them. But the characters in Brothers are more shadows and ideas than flesh and blood. They lack specific gravity, a sense of rootedness in family and social reality that would give ballast to the film's intense emotions.
At times, Brothersis like a less-mythical (and -pretentious) The Deer Hunter, with Maguire even managing to suggest something of Robert De Niro when he was young and thin and wired-when you could see his every cell react. As to the other two leads, Sheridan has gotten the best performances of their young lives. As much as I like Gyllenhaal, I've often found him fuzzy, as if he's wary of losing control. Is that why he's so affecting here? The dissolute Tommy turns out to be as tightly wound as his older brother, only too scared to focus. He looks pitifully vulnerable as he the supposedly dead Sam's family and becomes protective. Portman has the kind of role that turns actresses into dullards: the wife who stands and looks stricken at her man (or men) in paroxysms of rage and grief. But she's so grounded that as the others carry on, your eyes keep drifting to her. Yes, she's almost unbearably pretty, but it's her immediacy that keeps you glued to her face.
Sheridan and his screenplay sources make Brothers much more than a drama about war and marriage. It is about what we can forgive ourselves for - and that, too, has been a theme running through Sheridan's films. As an Irish Catholic of 60, he was raised to feel a great deal about guilt. This becomes Tobey Maguire's film to dominate, and I've never seen these dark depths in him before. Actors possess a great gift to surprise us, if they find the right material in their hands.
Maguire reveals a coiled ferocity and a convincingly unhinged, haunted quality. It's a little tougher to buy Gyllenhaal's sweet-natured Tommy as an armed robber. His transformation into a responsible good guy happens swiftly. Still, the two actors bear a resemblance, and their chemistry is evident. Portman is subdued and reactive in a part that doesn't call for her to do much else.
Of the three leads, Gyllenhaal gives the finest performance. He's jittery and charismatic — his eyes shift uncomfortably, as if he were constantly looking for escape... When [Sam] Shepard and Gyllenhaal appear in a scene together, the air around them is charged — it's as if the searching, vulnerable quality in Tommy's eyes registers as a taunt in the manly-man world of his father. The chemistry is a lot less charged, unfortunately, between Gyllenhaal and Portman... She holds back too much here, as if she has more invested in playing a dutiful wife and mother than she does in playing a human, sexual being. That may not be wholly her fault. My biggest reservation about Brothers is the way it downplays, and too readily smooths over, the sexual attraction between Tommy and Grace. I'm not suggesting that this Hollywood version of Brothers needs graphic sex. (The original didn't have that, either.) But I worry that Sheridan, intentionally or otherwise, may have muted the characters' attraction to one another out of fear that American audiences expect more virtuous behavior from their war-torn families.
In a parallel story, the film shows the appalling experiences of Sam and a fellow soldier (Patrick Flueger), who survived the crash but fell into the hands of the Taliban. Unfortunately, this is the weakest section of the film. Bier depicted the real horror in Sam's mental and physical challenges as well as his subtle relationship with his fellow soldier, so you believe the officer would snap and commit a soul-killing act in order to survive. This event is never convincing in the remake.
Portman has rarely been more movingly subdued as a wife and mother who refuses to let grief overpower her sense of responsibility, while Gyllenhaal is effortlessly believable as a drifter who finds, to his delight and ours, that fatherhood suits him well. Sheridan's empathetic touch with tyke actresses, so evident in 2003's In America, pays off beautifully in his work with young Madison, who's heartbreaking as the older and wiser of the two Cahill girls. With his crew cut and stiff posture (in contrast to Gyllenhaal's looser stance), Maguire is downright scary as a guy who seems to be headed the way of Pvt. Pyle in Full Metal Jacket. But he still looks a tad boyish for the part (Ulrich Thomsen was in his 40s when he played the role for Bier), and his decision to go explosively over-the-top at moments only exposes Sam as a psychological construct — more walking antiwar statement than full-blooded human being.
So much of the preceding is goo-laden with mopey guitars and adorable kid shots, Jim Sheridan's dual faults as a director. Still, shouldn't we expect fireworks when an emaciated, paranoid Sam confronts the family he can no longer connect to? There's an unwillingness to deliver the payoff; Brothers feels less like the Oscar-bait cinema we expect this time of year as much as an ersatz version that requires you to fill in the gaps. (The nearness of the recent The Messenger doesn't help.) We're supposed to creep up to the idea that war can steal more from a person than life and limb. That can't be conveyed in a few simple scenes of kitchen histrionics. Sheridan brings on U2's chords of healing way too soon.
With all these elements in place - brother against brother, intimations of adultery, and post-traumatic stress disorder at the top, not to mention alcoholism, crushing guilt, a cruel father, and assorted other crises - Brothersseems like a powder keg ready to go off. And though someone clearly lit the fuse on the normally mild-mannered Maguire, the film takes a leisurely hour to get to its dramatic core, with scenes from Afghanistan on loan from The Deer Hunter. Still, the intrinsically powerful material occasionally pierces through, with Gyllenhaal especially strong as a reformed yahoo who suddenly takes on more responsibility than he seems capable of handling. Brotherssupplies him and the other actors with a slew of big dramatic moments, but the emotions ring louder than any truths.
Having seen the trailer for Brothers and now the finished film, I feel as though I just watched the trailer twice. A thin script written by David Benioff and directed by Jim Sheridan (who based his film on a Danish one) is merely a promising first draft, a vague drama that is sort of a soapy love triangle ("I thought you were dead!" etc.) and sort of an inquiry into the post-battle trauma afflicting a Marine captain burdened by a gruesome secret about his captivity in Afghanistan... The movie is reasonably compelling and decently acted, but at no point is it convincing. It skips past essential plot points (why would the military report the Marine dead instead of MIA if his body was never found?), as well as deeper emotional quandaries.
Is it a movie you'll enjoy? Not enjoy, so much as appreciate. Or maybe recognize. Adapted by writer David Benioff and director Jim Sheridan from a 2004 Danish film of the same name, Brothers is depressing as hell. And, like most war movies these days, it ends on a note that's far from hopeful. But it's good, and wise, and it feels true. Meaning, it hurts... Though the term post-traumatic stress disorder is never mentioned, the film is one harrowing case study in PTSD, with a long, lingering emphasis on the P. As Sam notes, in voice-over, at the film's bleak and wrenching conclusion, "only the dead have seen the end of war."