Review: "Brothers"

At no family dinner on the planet would a tearful tyke yell at her father: "You're just mad because Mom would rather sleep with Uncle Tommy than you!" It's a moment that shouldn't have made it to the final cut of "Brothers," Jim Sheridan's remake of a 2004 Danish film about the impact of battle-triggered post-traumatic stress syndrome. But not only is it a key part of the movie, it's also featured in its trailers -- along with a sensitive soundtrack, come-hither looks, and beatific post-lay smiles.

Notice that I said that the film is about PSTD, which is another failure of its marketing. Watch the ads and you'll come away with this: A black sheep steps up to take care of the hot wife and two daughters of his brother, a Marine who was killed in Afghanistan -- or was he? When the widow and her in-law get used to making moon eyes at each other and the soldier turns out to be alive after all...awkward!

The good news is that "Brothers" has far more depth than all that tripe. Similar to this year's "The Hurt Locker" -- if slightly inferior because of its love-triangle distraction -- the film's more prominent angle is the ungodly experiences troops face when shipped to fight overseas, and how those traumas can change them so deeply that the world of suburbs and shopping malls is, mentally and emotionally, impossible for them to return to.

At the beginning of the story, Capt. Sam Cahill (Tobey Maguire) has just enough time to greet his brother, Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal), and ease him back into regular life after he gets out of jail before Sam leaves to serve another tour. Tommy's release isn't exactly a happy event: Sam and his wife, Grace (Natalie Portman), host a dinner for him, but it's ruined by the unmasked bitterness of their father (Sam Shepard), who openly praises Sam as a hero while denigrating Tommy as a good-for-nothing lowlife. (His crime isn't revealed, but it's implied that he robbed a woman.) Even Grace isn't thrilled to have him around, with her animosity dating back to their high-school days.

That changes when Sam's involved in a helicopter crash while on duty and assumed dead. Really, though, he and a private (Patrick Flueger) are taken hostage and tortured for several months, unbeknownst to their unit. Meanwhile, Grace and Tommy develop a grudging friendship, initially out of their mutual need for someone to rely on -- but eventually they each realize the other is good-looking and available. Grace's girls (Bailee Madison and Taylor Geare) like Tommy as well, if only because he's around every day, a presence their father could never guarantee.

There's a night of beer, pot, U2, and a kiss. And then a phone call telling Grace that Sam is indeed alive. Shock is the family's understandable response, though a hint of disappointment seems to be lurking beneath.

Sheridan ("My Left Foot," "In the Name of the Father") lets this all play out leisurely and quietly, with only the occasional -- and jarring -- insertion of Happy Funtime Music to decorate a playful scene. Besides Sam's horrific experience as a hostage, the film's main action is nonaction, with Grace and Tommy going about the pedestrian routines that comprise most people's day-to-day. When Sam returns, the film is still quiet -- only this time, there's a haunted skeleton of a man shuffling around his kitchen and obsessing over whether his brother and wife are involved.

Sam's inability to transform from a soldier who both witnesssed and performed terrible violence back to a husband and father is "Brothers'" gripping crux, and Maguire delivers an award-worthy madman. He projects Sam's disconnect with the regular world with practically only his eyes; they bug and deaden as he tries to process his daughters' jokes or make himself believe that Tommy and Grace aren't having an affair. The actor also pulls a Christian Bale, dropping a significant amount of weight to realistically look like someone his little girls would suddenly be wary of.

The tension within the family after Sam returns is unrelenting, with the dinner scene that includes the above-referenced unfortunate line an otherwise masterpiece that will resonate with anyone who's endured a not-so-happy celebration with their fucked-up family. Matching Maguire's intense performance is, remarkably, wee Ms. Madison, who is heartbreakingly believable as a daughter angry with her father specifically and unhappy with her home life in general. She'll wrench your guts, along with the film as a whole -- far more than a simple love-gone-wrong drama could ever deliver.

4 stars
2009, Rated R, 110 minutes, Lionsgate
Official site:
http://www.brothersfilm.com/
Directed by Jim Sheridan
Written by David Benioff, Susanne Bier, Anders Thomas Jensen
Starring Tobey Maguire, Natalie Portman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Sam Shepard, Clifton Collins Jr., Mare Winningham, Carey Mulligan, Patrick Flueger, Bailee Madison, and Taylor Geare

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