Saturday, December 12, 2009
Jim Sheridan's Brothers is a film that, not unlike the recently-released Up in the Air, must attribute a lot of its success to the work of its three leads. Tobey Maguire, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Natalie Portman are perfectly cast, and, quite frankly, I'm not sure why the Oscar buzz surrounding these performances isn't stronger. This movie is a remake of Susanne Bier's well-received 2004 Danish film, and almost every mediocre review I've read of this film has mentioned its inferiority to Bier's original. Fortunately, I haven't seen Bier's film and have the luxury of judging Sheridan's compelling effort on its own merits.
Sam (Maguire) and Tommy (Gyllenhaal) Cahill are brothers in a biological context, but at the start of the film, they couldn't be any more different. Sam is married to his longtime sweetheart Grace (Portman), they have two lovely daughters, Isabelle (Bailee Madison) and Maggie (Taylor Geare), and he is about to depart for Afghanistan once again. On the other end of the spectrum, Tommy is being released from jail for armed robbery. He is a frequent drunk, a man with no visible care in the world.
One of the key characters in the film is the boys' father, Hank (a terrific Sam Shepard). He treats Tommy without a fraction of respect and can't even contain himself from insulting his convict son at the dinner table in one of the film's first scenes. Sam tries to calm him down, but we can tell from his weak effort that Hank's behavior has been very similar to this throughout the years.
Not too long after Sam deploys, the family learns that he has in fact died in a helicopter crash. A honorary funeral is thrown, and many Marines are present to pay their respects to Grace, Hank, and the entire family. You can only imagine the levels of emotions streaming through this family, and they are on full display when Tommy and Hank have a confrontation in the parking lot after the service. At this point, there is really no other way to see things: The family is broken.
Eventually, Tommy decides to clean up his act. He starts spending more time with Grace and the girls, and even gets some of his old friends to help him remodel the kitchen. While Tommy is becoming closer to his previously estranged family, his brother is actually alive in Afghanistan, and has been taken prisoner with a close friend, Joe Willis (Patrick Flueger).
What these two men are put through is horrifying, and you can bet that when Sam returns home, he won't be the same man he was at the beginning of the film. Things happen to us in life that change us, and that is what I think Sheridan is trying to show with this film. When Sam is presumed dead, Tommy becomes a better, more loving person. After Sam is put through unspeakable things in Afghanistan, he cannot simply return home and be a loving father and husband. How these men change is the story, and it is told very well.
As previously mentioned, the performances are what elevate this film into something worth-seeing. Tobey Maguire, the seemingly nerdy kid who played Spider-Man, lost a whole bunch of weight for this film, and he does a terrific job. He displays potential that I think few people ever saw in him. It is a performance of few words, but many emotions. His portrait of a haunted, emotionally paralyzed war victim is reminiscent of Christopher Walken's Oscar-winning performance in The Deer Hunter.
Portman and Gyllenhaal, two of the most reliable actors working today, are as good as they've ever been in this film. The feelings that develop between their characters could have easily been corny and rushed, but they develop naturally. The two child actors are also well worth-mentioning here. The roles of the daughters are not window-dressers; they are critical to the development of the characters and the story, and both young girls do an admirable job.
Where this film ultimately comes up a bit short is in the final act. The inevitable showdown is built up at an effectively slow pace throughout the film, but the final climax ends up feeling rushed. But regardless of how it plays out, the finale brings up important questions about war. They're certainly dilemmas we have all seen before in war films, but the fact that they keep showing up is a testament to how powerful and thought-provoking they are.
In a dinner scene at the beginning of the film, Gyllenhaal's character delivers a devastating line. One of the daughters mentions the fact that her father shoots the bad guys when he goes off to war, and Tommy replies, "Who are the bad guys?". It's a subtly effective line that stuck with me throughout the film, and the absence of response from the family at the table makes it all the more powerful. If we can't even pinpoint who we're fighting against, why are these soldiers being put through all of this suffering? Why are their lives being ruined by an unclear cause? Sheridan's job isn't to answer these question, but simply present them in an effective way, and he and his cast do just that.