Lionsgate // 2009 // 105 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Patrick Bromley // March 23rd, 2010
There are two sides to every family.
The 2004 Danish drama Brødre became yet another film to get its own American remake in 2009, starring Tobey Maguire, Jake Gyllenhaal, Natalie Portman and directed by Jim Sheridan. Met with mixed critical response and average box office upon its release, the movie now makes its way onto DVD courtesy of Lions Gate.
When Captain Sam Cahill's (Tobey Maguire, Pleasantville) helicopter is shot down during a tour in Afghanistan, his wife, Grace (Natalie Portman, Heat) and two daughters are left widowed and fatherless. Left behind to care for them or Sam's screw-up brother Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal, Donnie Darko), fresh out of prison, and the boys' alcoholic, militaristic father (Sam Shepard, Days of Heaven). However, Sam isn't actually dead, but rather a prisoner of war forced to commit unspeakable acts to stay alive and return to his family. When he does, it's not the family he once knew -- either they've changed, or he has.
Good filmmaking can rarely salvage a movie filled with bad acting, but sometimes the inverse can be true: a film that falls short in its storytelling and construction can be saved by terrific performances. That's the case with the 2009 drama Brothers, a movie that's flawed in its execution but boasts acting strong enough to make it worth seeing. Like most of director Jim Sheridan's filmography, there's a lot to like about the attention paid to relationships and family dynamics, and Brothers is nothing if not well-intentioned in its efforts to bring light to the plight of soldiers who return home from war to a life they no longer understand or relate to. Sheridan isn't quite able to bring all these threads together, however, and the result is a noble mess that's very well acted.
Though Tobey Maguire received the most attention for his work in Brothers, including a 2009 Golden Globe nomination, it's the work from Gyllenhaal and Portman that really stood out to me. Their roles are less showy, but that's what I like about the performances. Both actors create characters from the inside out -- they're understated and quiet, and their scenes together are the best in the movie. Portman, in particular, runs the risk of seeming miscast, but she's deceptively good in her part as a young military widow. The scene where she learns the fate of her husband is one we've seen a dozen times, but Portman brings a dignity and humanity to a moment that often gives way to histrionics. I was particularly moved by the way she's gracious to the bearers of bad news. It's a shame that both actors are somewhat sidelined in the movie's final third and that the characters that they've created with such gentle care stop participating in the plot. They are only allowed to react.
That's the biggest problem with Brothers. Unfortunately, so much of what's set up in the film's first half fails to come together in the second half, and it eventually plays like a highlight reel of emotional moments without filling in the spaces between them -- the spaces that inform those emotional payoffs so that they make dramatic sense. Instead, Sheridan rushes from Big Moment to Big Moment, and the groundwork that has been so carefully and patiently laid in the movie's first hour goes to waste. Though I'm not comfortable critiquing Brothers's portrayal of PTSD (I've never know anyone who's suffered from it, and for all I know the film's representation of it could be spot-on), I can say that those sequences don't quite work dramatically -- not within the larger context of the movie, anyway (on their own, they can be tense and unnerving). The end of the film comes and it's a surprise when it should be organic and inevitable, as though Sheridan is in too big a hurry to bring in Brothers for a landing. Character threads and relationships are left hanging, and not in a deliberately ambiguous way. I'm comfortable when a film doesn't feel the need to wrap everything up neatly, as long as I know it's a choice by the filmmaker. I'm not sure that's the case in Brothers.
Brothers comes to DVD courtesy of Lions Gate. The 2.40:1 transfer, which has been enhanced for 16x9 playback, looks good but unspectacular thanks, in part, to the washed-out and drab look that Sheridan has given the film. The movie feels cold and bleak in most places, and the DVD does a decent job of replicating those intentions without really distinguishing itself. The 5.1 audio track (a standard stereo track is also available, but I didn't give it a test drive) keeps the dialogue clear in the front channels and gives a good deal of punch to the sporadic military sequences. On the technical front, there's not much to complain about on the Brothers DVD.
Director Jim Sheridan sits down for a feature-length commentary track, and it's the kind of track I wish there were more of; rather than just going through a scene-by-scene technical breakdown, Sheridan discusses the movie's themes and his own thoughts and feelings about some of the things that are addressed in Brothers. The commentary transcends the format, playing more like a one-sided interview with a very talented filmmaker; fans of the film and (even more so) fans of Sheridan will be richly rewarded by the track. A pair of featurettes has also been included. The first, "Remade in the U.S.A.," collects cast and crewmembers to discuss how the remake of the original Danish Brødre came to be and why everyone involved felt the film needed to be remade. While I still haven't seen the original film, the clips that are included make the American Brothers look like a shot-for-shot remake, and no one in the featurette is able to provide much of a reason for remaking the film other than to bring the film to American audiences -- that is, to put it in English. A second featurette, "Jim Sheridan: Film and Family," looks at the director's filmography and attempts to place Brothers within his canon of movies that focus on familial relationships. The original theatrical trailer for Brothers has also been included, as have a few bonus trailers for additional Lions Gate titles.
It's the individual aspects of Brothers that are greater than their sum, but those aspects still make the film worth checking out. There's a missed opportunity for greatness, but strong performances and director Sheridan's usual attention to relationship dynamics rescue an otherwise messy movie.
Deeply flawed, but ultimately not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.40:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 105 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Official Site