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BROTHERS (2009) review

March 23, 2010


written by Daniel Benioff
produced by: Ryan Kavanaugh & Sigurjon Sighvatsson
directed by: Jim Sheridan
rated R (for language and some disturbing violent content)
104 min.
U.S. release date: December 4, 2009
DVD release date: March 23, 2010


I’ve been meaning to catch up with a 2004 Danish film called “Brothers,” since I saw this remake when it was released back in December. I’m unsure what the differences are beyond the obvious (cast, director & setting) I’m certain the overall plot remains the same. Both films tell the harrowing melodrama of how war touches the lives of a family when their father/husband/soldier goes off to war and returns emotionally scarred. While there are some solid performances here, I’m hoping that the original is superior and more convincing than this remake that seems lacking in several important areas.

Director Jim Sheridan (“In the Name of the Father” & “In America”) places the setting in the present with the current war in Afghanistan. Having recently returned from the war, Captain Sam Cahill (Tobey Maguire) is now looking at another extended tour away from his wife, Grace (Natalie Portman) and his two young daughters Isabelle (Bailee Madison) and Maggie (Taylor Geare). He’s a dedicated marine, lauded by his boozing father, Hank (Sam Shephard), who is proud of the man his older son has become and reserves his biting judgement for his younger son, Tommy. Just as Sam is about to leave, Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal), shows up, fresh outta the slammer for armed robbery, like a rolling stone. The awkwardness and tension between the father and his sons seems real and understandable which is natural since Sheridan has a history of presenting families in an honest and relatable way.




Sam’s departure triggers a dramatic arch for all of the characters as we see the two brothers thrust into unanticipated situations. Tommy tentatively steps in to take care of his brother’s family, facing the wrath of his judgmental father and Grace’s apprehension. She eventually warms up to him as she sees her daughters connect with their uncle. Sheridan takes us back and forth, showing what Sam goes through in Afghanistan after he is taken prisoner once his helicopter crashes. Back home, Hank is still hesitant to buy Tommy’s slow turnaround, something that becomes evident when the family attend a funeral for Sam once he is presumed dead. Needless to say, Grace is devastated yet finds encouragement through Tommy’s support around the house and with the kids.

While we are shown the unspeakable acts Sam had to endure in order to make it home to his family this is unfortunately where Sheridan misfires. He didn’t have to show us everything that went down in the Middle East. It would’ve been more impacting, felt more real, if we were to experience images of what he endured as Sam recollected it either through therapy or as he explained to a fellow soldier (maybe the one played by Clifton Collins, Jr.) but instead he returns and becomes a robot psycho dad/husband/son.

Sure, we start to see the real toll that war has on the family but we see it in an unfair fastforward manner that drops us into unbelievable territory. It’s a given that Sam will come back shell-shocked, experiencing some form of combat PTSD but Maguire just didn’t sell it for me….or maybe he oversold it.




As much praise that Maguire is getting for this particular part of his role, I didn’t buy it. That’s partly because the script by David Benioff (“X-Men Origins: Wolverine”) just doesn’t invest enough time in allowing the character to genuinely transition back to life but Maguire is to blame as well. Acting emotionless and bug-eyed around those who live you does not necessarily convey a tormented soul. I’m not giving anything away here (blame that on the misleading and revealing trailers for this film) since it wouldn’t really be about “Brothers” if one of them died.

I think it’s this movie that I realized that Maguire has the most out-of-place body language on film. It’s as if he doesn’t know what to do with his body language! There’s a scene where he just stands in his home and watches as his wife and her friend (a cameo by Carey Mulligan) sit and talk. Just. Stands. There. I know what the scene was trying to accomplish it but Maguire doesn’t hit it. He doesn’t come across as tormented but more like dumb as rocks. When Sam finally flies off the handle and loses it in front of Grace, violently destroying their kitchen, it’s borderline laughable. Anything leading up to that scene has not earned the emotional impact it should warrant.

Like his previous films, Jordan excels in portraying families enduring ordeals. His best scenes are at the family dinner table as we see the unspoken tension build up and the all too familiar awkwardness it brings. Those are some of the best characterizations in the film, especially from the standout performances of the girls. As Grace, Portman is on the verge of being miscast. She’s a fine actress who has proved her potential in the past but as a mother, she didn’t convince me at all. A scene between her and Tommy is supposed to be this connecting moment while U2’s Bad comes on the radio but it just felt too obvious, almost forced exposition. The best adult performance is given by Gyllenhaal who has to tread carefully with the tattooed bad-by role he is given. At first he has his trademark emotive broodings but slowly we see him peel away the defensive layers to expose a believable vulnerable. If only there were more scenes that connected his character with Maguire’s so the audience would be convinced that these brothers were tight.

Sometimes I wind up in the minority in my reaction to a film and that is the case here. It seems like everyone else had praise for this film. I wanted to because Sheridan is a director I always like but I feel like his narrative misfire could have been avoided and his runaway pacing in the last quarter of the film wound up altogether hurting the final cut. It felt like maybe there was too much left on the editing room floor, at least I hope that was the reason. For any fans of these actors, I would say this is worth checking out. You’ll be treated to some fine child actors who show genuine chops. Bluntly put, for a film entitled “Brothers” there should have been more to their sibling relationship than was on-screen. There are better films out there dealing with the current war, especially touching on combat PTSD, sadly, this is not one of them.




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