Though the film is called Brothers, it is really about family and how we interact with them through the most trying moments of our lives.
Brothers is a very emotional film about how war affects not only the soldiers who fight but also the families they leave behind. The film, directed by Jim Sheridan, whose In America was a moving portrait of an Irish immigrant family trying to survive in New York, does its best not to take any political stance, though some themes do become apparent. Though our country’s dealings in the Middle East are a contentious topic among most people, Brothers should be a film that most can identify with as a distillation of what is happening to our soldiers who go off to war. The story is a perfect distillation of how some effects may be delayed and can be lingering.
As the film opens, Capt. Sam Cahill (Tobey Maguire) is about to be sent back to Afghanistan for his fourth tour of duty, leaving behind his wife, Grace (Natalie Portman), and their two daughters. At the same time he is getting ready to ship out, he is also bringing home his brother Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal) from prison after serving three years. Sam and Tommy are polar opposites: one the ideal child/citizen, the other a deadbeat with a criminal record. The differences are not lost on their father, Hank (Sam Shepard), a retired Marine who dotes on Sam and criticizes Tommy’s every move.
Very soon after he arrives in Afghanistan, Sam’s Black Hawk helicopter is shot down in the mountains and he is taken prisoner by the Taliban. Back home, however, Grace is told that Sam was killed and we see how the Cahill family deals—or doesn’t deal, in some cases—with Sam’s death. Here is where the film diverges into two stories. Back home we watch Grace and the children become close to Tommy who, for once, accepts the responsibilities laid on him. In the mountains of Afghanistan, we witness what Sam is subjected to and the terrifying decisions he has to make.
The stories come back together when it is discovered Sam is alive and on his way home. Grace is overwhelmed with joy while Tommy feels a mixture of sadness and guilt about that sadness, as he has begun enjoying his role as a substitute father and husband. Sam, however, has changed; it quickly becomes apparent that he is not the same man as when he left.
This is easily the best performance of Maguire’s career, which is a compliment but only a minor one, as his performances are typically very stiff and understated. In Brothers, Maguire gets to let loose for once and we see the energy he is capable of imbuing in his characters. Unfortunately, he sometimes pushes it too far and serious moments become humorous. Gyllenhaal and Portman are both fantastic, as these are two of the most talented young actors working today. Both are capable of taking any character and making it believable. There are few scenes Tommy and Grace share alone, but they are the most touching scenes in the film.
Sheridan is a fantastic director and he has taken a script by David Benioff (adapted from the film of the same name by Danish filmmakers Susanne Bier and Anders Thomas Jensen) and created a masterfully orchestrated film dealing with many of the dark emotions we prefer to ignore or suppress. Though the film is called Brothers, it is really about family and how we interact with them through the most trying moments of our lives. | Matthew F. Newlin