Howdy all. Back from a long absence at sea with a review of the latest in Oscar bait flicks about the war, Brothers.
The cinematic forefathers of Brothers are readily apparent just by glimpsing at the surface. Dude goes to war and is presumed dead leaving his wife and family at home to grieve for him. Insert brother, or best friend, or random stranger to come in and make a move on the missus, often against the better angels of his nature but, you know, they have to get on with their lives. The Deer Hunter, Coming Home and the 2004 Danish film on which Brothers is based, Brodre, all travel along similar structures. Yet despite the familiarity of the setup, the right combination of actors can breath life into any premise, no matter how tired or overused, and Brothers sports three of the finest and most appealing of their generation.
I get excited about movies where I get to see some of my favorite actors work together for the first time, and Brothers excited me for that very reason. Tobey Maguire and Jake Gyllenhaal have always been linked in my mind since Gyllenhaal was all set to take over the role of Peter Parker if Maguire, riddled with back pain and exhaustion, opted out of returning for Spiderman 2. Alas, Maguire did return and a gave a fine performance in a great movie. Gyllenhaal went on to breakout in Brokeback Mountain and has stayed at the top of the heap ever since. The similarity of their looks (big eyes, boyish movie star faces) has always kept them close in my mind and made them seem plausible as brothers. It’s also just fun to watch them square off.
Also, I feel good watching a movie where the three leads all have strong, serious careers. One thing to value is that Maguire, Gyllenhaal and Portman aren’t known for appearing in schlocky, dispensable movies. All in their young careers have at least one black mark on their record; Spiderman 3 for Maguire, Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium for Portman, The Day after Tomorrow for Gyllenhaal, all crap mainstream movies where they seem to have gotten wrapped up in career interest (and though Spiderman 3 was so bad, Maguire was contractually obligated to appear). But, for the most part, these guys keep to movies that either try to say something or at least tell stories that are actually worth telling. Brothers looked like one of those.
Maguire and Gyllenhaal play Sam and Tommy Cahill, the former an upstanding citizen and soldier about to ship out for another tour in Afghanistan, the latter a ne’er-do-well screw-up just getting out of prison for an armed robbery charge. Their father Hank (Sam Shepard), a former marine, has made no secret of his affection for Sam and contempt for Tommy, something that makes family dinners a little problematic. As the film opens, Tommy has just returned home as Sam is preparing to deploy, leaving his wife Grace (Portman) to fend for herself along with their two girls (Taylor Geare and Bailee Madison).
As the film’s trailers have made clear, Sam is presumed dead in a helicopter crash. The film goes through the typical strokes of military grief; two messengers deliver the news to Grace (which The Messengers, this Oscar season’s other military movie, explores in greater detail), a stirring funeral of hero worship ensues, and Hank gets to play the ‘wrong kid died’ card on poor Tommy, who counters by starting to become a more responsible version of himself, helping Grace around the house, remodeling her shabby kitchen, and doting on her girls. It doesn’t exactly sneak up on you when Tommy and Grace become attracted to each other, but it makes sense that they do.
I’m not spoiling anything (the film’s trailers have already done that) by revealing that Sam was not actually dead, but taken prisoner by the Taliban and made to do terrible things. What kinds of terrible things? Not quite as bad as Deer Hunter but in the same cold, brutal ballpark of psychological torture. He’s rescued, comes home and is, unmistakably, a shadow of his former self. Laboring under post-traumatic stress, he starts to suspect that Tommy and Grace are sleeping together. He becomes detached from the family and wants desperately to return to war. It all leads to an emotional climax where Sam confronts those he left behind with his psychological damage.
The film’s earnest, if de-politicized, intention is to explore the trauma of soldiers returning from Afghanistan and Iraq. This facet of the story gains the most attention from the film’s director, Jim Sheridan, and its writer, David Benioff, who stage the scenes in Afghanistan with brutal clarity and realism. Once Sam’s story returns to the states, they are able to keep its intensity high, mostly thanks to Maguire’s fiery, disciplined performance. Obsessively rearranging dishes in the family’s new kitchen with a gun never far from his hand, Maguire wears the scars of PTS with optimum authenticity. In the film’s most harrowing scene (spoilers ahead) where he is forced to murder another marine in captivity with him, Maguire makes the interesting choice of refocusing the anger he feels toward his captors onto the man they would have him kill, resulting in explosion of confused violence. Later, when Grace confronts him with questions about what he experienced in war, he refocuses his anger again on her relationship with Tommy. It’s a brilliantly crafted performance, one filled with skill and nuance. I’ve long thought Maguire was talented, but here we see him go to emotional depths he’s never explored before.
The film’s problem is in the Tommy-Grace storyline. It just never amounts to much and seems to unfold less from an organic connection and more from the necessities of Benioff’s screenplay. Their attraction is a simple conceit and seems, if not reasonable, then at least realistic in the climate of the film, but Sheridan finds a way to bungle it. They are really only given one scene where they are allowed to explore their attraction, the rest of the time faintly resembling a couple that could be in love. Their story is helped by the presence of Geare and Madison, playing the daughters and demonstrating Sheridan’s continued skill (also seen in In America) for getting great performances out of kids. Gyllenhaal, Portman and the little girls seem so natural as a family unit that, when the two of them finally explore their attraction, it seems more like the next logical step for the story rather than a deep, romantic connection.
Perhaps that is the point. Sheridan and Benioff seem so enamored with the bruising nature of Sam’s story that Tommy and Grace’s actions seem to exist mainly to set up turmoil once he returns. Maybe they didn’t want to play up the love triangle in the interest of keeping the focus on what happens to Sam. They also seem to want to avoid the inevitable quandary that these stories present; will Grace choose Tommy or Sam? It’s interesting that that never becomes an issue with Grace’s character, so ineffectual is her romantic interest in Tommy.
So Sheridan and Benioff want to make a movie about PTS? That works, but why even go there with Grace and Tommy at all? Why not just let Sam’s suspicions run wild without them being founded in the minds of the audience? I think its because, if they aren’t founded on some level, Sam’s suspicions will make him seem too crazy for the audience’s tastes. But if they aren’t going to give Grace and Tommy’s store the same respect as Sam’s, then why set them up as possible lovers?
The film’s other big problem comes from what I like to call the trouble of trying to tell a very heavy handed story in the minor key. There are a lot of very subtle, nuanced moments here that tell the story in a very clear way. But there are also an abundance of very overstated, melodramatic moments that tend to look ridiculous when held under the microscope of real life. These moments, among them a dinner table scene late in the film where all parties very ham-handedly square off, spring more from the need for things to happen quickly in the story than any kind of emotional realism. They compromise the integrity and skill of the film’s quieter, more simplistic scenes. You know that feeling when you think ‘this movie would be great if it would stop feeling like such a movie’? Yeah, lot of that here.
Maybe its the price of having big actors in your movie and trying to give it some kind of mainstream appeal. I doubt people would want to sit still for a movie that played its major moments out in hushed tones. In pining for mainstream appeal though, they make an incomplete film, one that could have been great but is instead just watchable.