A Family at War with Itself
Review of Brothers (2009) dir. Jim Sheridan
The almost empty movie theatre confirmed the old truth that moviegoers are not interested in war movies and war movies generally do not find much success at the box office. The staggering success of the 2010 Academy Award-winning The Hurt Locker was an exception to that rule. Therefore, it comes as a surprise that three of the best American movies of 2009 (The Hurt Locker, The Messenger, and Brothers) have the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as their backdrops.
Brothers is a remake of the 2004 eponymous Danish film written and directed by Susan Bier. Reviewers generally agree that the American adaptation doesn’t surpass its Danish original because it fails to capture the emotional intensity thereof. I haven’t seen the Danish movie, so I can’t confirm or deny this claim, but I found the American remake emotionally intense enough—even draining.
The plot is very simple and resonates with echoes of other films. Sam Cahill (Tobey Maguire) is preparing for another tour of duty (his fourth, if I am not mistaken) in Afghanistan. He has only time to say good-bye to his loving wife (Natalie Portman) and his two beautiful young girls and fetch from prison his black-sheep brother, Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal). Shortly after his arrival in Afghanistan, Sam’s Black Hawk helicopter is shot down and his wife soon receives the awful news of his presumed death. In fact, Sam and another Marine have been captured and tortured by a Taliban group. Back at home, the mourning Grace draws comfort from Sam’s parents and Tommy, who is, due to his brother’s death, forced to mature and assume responsibility for Sam’s wife and daughters. Just when it seems that Grace has found a replacement for Sam, her beloved husband, to everybody’s shock, comes back alive—a shadow of what he used to be. Neither his wife nor his children recognize him. He has become uncharacteristically withdrawn and suffers from volatile moods. Haunted by what he has seen and done, he is unable to reconnect with his children and he convinces himself that Tommy and Grace were sleeping together during his absence.
The acting trio of Maguire, Portman and Gyllenhaal is convincing. The diametrically opposite brothers seem to be real brothers: they even have the same searching and vulnerable quality in their eyes. Natalie Portman makes the best of her underwritten role of the stereotypical grieving wife. Director Sheridan draws strong performances even from the youngest actors. Bailee Madison and Taylor Geare are excellent as Sam and Grace’s daughters. They often act with facial expressions only, yet they are stunning and touching at the same time when derailed by their father’s frightening bouts of anger and newfound coldness.
However, the most electrifying is the “former Spiderman”, Tobey Maguire, doing his best work to date. After all, his character goes through the most dramatic changes in the movie. The model father and husband and national hero turns into a psychically derailed man—a wreck. You may even recognize some echoes of Robert DeNiro’s Deer Hunter in the character of Sam—although he lacks the mythicalness and pretentiousness of Michael. Sam has faced one of the most difficult moral dilemmas: to survive or sacrifice himself; he has made his choice, but the film refuses to judge the rightness or wrongness of his action. The film refuses to give the viewer definite answers or moralize.
Like many American war movies (no matter what war they depict), Brothers doesn’t take a political stance on the armed conflict, but simply focuses on the impact wars have on soldiers and their families. Despite that, it is quite a powerful and disturbing addition to the tradition of homefront war stories.