Director: Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot, In the Name of the Father, In America, Get Rich or Die Tryin’)
Screenplay: David Benioff
Producers: Ryan Kavanaugh, Sigurjon Sighvatsson, Michael De Luca
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Natalie Portman, Tobey Maguire, Taylor Geare, Bailee Madison, Clifton Collins Jr., Sam Shepard, Mare Winningham
MPAA Rating: R
Running time: 110 min.
1. a dramatic form that does not observe the laws of cause and effect and that exaggerates emotion and emphasizes plot or action at the expense of characterization.
Within this category, from this definition, Brothers certainly does not fit. Simply because the reactions and emotional motivation expressed by these characters in light of their situation are not exaggerated nor does it diminish the characterization for the sake of plot. Some quite brutal, confusing and varied circumstances surround these characters throughout the picture and quite certainly the emotions can be sympathized with. If anything, the performances almost don’t go far enough in portraying the sadness, heartbreak, confusion and traumatic stress these characters undergo.
War is hell. Someone once said that only the dead see the end of war. This isn’t entirely accurate. Lots of people see the end of war and for most of them the reasons are extenuating, life altering and likely bring about negative emotions and memories and might even involve physical disability. For Capt. Sam Cahill (Maguire) this is exactly the case. Though not physically debilitating, the emotional impact and torment of what he suffered while in Afghanistan was enough to change him so much so that his family barely recognizes him and indeed, have difficulty tolerating his seemingly irrational and unpredictable behavior when he comes home. Believing Sam is dead, the family carries on as best they can without him in their life. They struggle to move on while Sam’s brother, Tommy, instinctively takes over some of the household responsibilities which slowly evolves into becoming somewhat of a father figure for the two little girls. A bit of sexual tension also builds between Sam’s wife and Tommy as they deal with their loneliness and loss; though nothing overtly sexual ever takes place.
Finally arriving home, Sam is unable to talk about his ordeal with his loved ones, he mentally retreats into self punishment and paranoia about his wife sleeping with his brother while he was away. Dealing with post traumatic stress, a brother out of prison, distrust of his wife and two children who grow increasingly afraid of him may be slowly driving Sam to a mental snap that could jeopardize everyone he loves; including himself.
Although plenty of events transpire outside of Sam’s immediate world, everything that takes place is a direct result of him and his choices. This is Sam’s story. This is his journey through hell and we’re the onlookers of both his ordeal and the misery that his family suffers under their loss. The things Sam sees and participates in are almost unmentionable and these acts devastatingly multiply his grief and internal horror when he returns home and must face other characters. As an audience, we “get” to see everything that is going on from all angles while everyone else must suffer through the excruciating pain of simply not knowing.
As for Sam, his ordeal in Afghanistan is, while horrific, well within the bounds of tolerability for a main stream audience. The sweltering, dusty climate of the mountains in Afghanistan and the vicious warriors that dwell within them seem realistic enough and not merely caricatures of an unseen enemy. The torture doled out to Sam and his compatriot is certainly brutal and hard to stomach but is mostly inferred. There is little blood or physical pain actually shown on screen. Arguably this is worse on our psyches however, since what is happening is somewhat left up to our imaginations; and we know it’s bad.
The film comes dangerously close in succumbing to pretentiousness, eye-rolling cheesiness and an anti-war preacher’s pulpit. Mostly due to director Jim Sheridan’s commitment to staying focused on the people and their thoughts, experiences and emotions we generally stray from those grounds. Although it’s Natalie Portman et. al., we really do get the sense that these are just real folk struggling with something that no family or individual should ever have to deal with. The only thing I could sense from a technical standpoint that was a tad on the heavy-handed side was some of the musical cues and score. It felt like by-the-book, pop rock garbage that not only does no one want to hear, but just doesn’t fit right with the tone of the film. U2 entering the scene at just the “right” moment was distracting and a little bit eye-rolling.
The script at times too, can feel a little bit contrived and unbelievable; particularly when the children are involved. The young actors here actually hold their own quite well while sitting at the cinematic table with the likes of three A-listers and two seasoned veterans like Mare Winningham and Sam Shepard. The problem is that some of their lines are far too convenient and smart to be coming from a five year-old kid. I’d give the kids in this movie about a 50% success rate in keeping within the story. The rest of the time they were a little distracting and took me out of the story somewhat. Of course interacting with Portman throughout most of their screen time helps as she tends to be able to carry the scenes on her shoulders.
The film mostly just comes down to great actors doing their thing and doing it well. Nobody is phoning it in, so to speak, on this one. Portman is as radiant as she always is and plays the grieving, but strong, mother type particularly well. Two actors I personally am not especially fond of take the reins here and snap the proverbial horses into overdrive; impressing me fully. Gone is Peter Parker; Tobey Maguire is outstanding in this picture (easily his showiest) in which he essentially plays three different people. He’s a loving, quiet, family man, then a strong, courageous, honorable, unbreakable Marine fulfilling his duty to his country and finally a man shattered by depravity and neglect. He’s a zombie-like, broken man one minute then temperamental and maniacal the next. This is juxtaposed sharply from his loving every-man and the Oscar buzz we’re likely to see isn’t without merit.
While Maguire, Shepard and Portman are all fantastic and likely some Oscar buzz coming for Maguire, I found it to be Jake Gyllenhaal who is really proving his chops here as his character must exercise his own demons and take on a responsibility that he’s probably not ready for and taking flak from all domestic sides which might either break him down, only proving his father right in his loser status or really coming into his own and manning up when needed. Gyllenhaal keeps the melodrama in check, but turns on the angst, sadness or love when needed. It’s a striking performance that although we’ve seen before in other characters, I can’t remember one with as much depth or as believable as Gyllenhaal brings to this role.
Brothers plays with our expectations as it appears it may be a bit on the preachy side and looks like it might be more action-packed than it actually is. When in fact, there is almost no actual war scenes in the movie and while Sheridan is clearly giving us an anti-war message, it’s not the message you might expect. There is nary a political message to be found in the slightest. Instead, this is a story about familial relationships and how that structure is altered because of war. The fact that the film takes place within our current war in Afghanistan is almost irrelevant and is used simply to give the audience something more immediate and home-hitting that they can relate to. In reality, this story could’ve been told within the context of almost any conflict in history.
In the end, the film is completely captivating and engrossing mostly due to the terrific performances turned in by nearly everyone. It’s got some rough edges and some might argue that it delves into the melodramatic too much. But this author personally doesn’t see that and even if it is there, I don’t see how it’s a weakness. Brothers is never preachy on a political level and though dealing with lots of characters and lots of different relational dynamics never is unfocused or forced. The story flows mostly smoothly and quickly and not as dark and depressing as it might seem. Plenty of humor and heartwarming moments are sprinkled throughout the film nicely to keep the audience from collectively slitting their own wrists. Two hours really seemed to fly by without the slightest hint of a dragging weight holding me down. Maybe not worth many more subsequent viewings, but well worth taking the chance on a trip to the theater at least once.