Lionsgate // 2009 // 105 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // March 15th, 2010
There are two sides to every family.
"Why couldn't you just stay dead?"
Sam Cahill (Tobey Maguire, Seabiscuit) is a decorated Marine who is about to begin another tour of duty in Afghanistan. Sam is married to a woman named Grace (Natalie Portman, V for Vendetta) and is the father of two young children named Isabelle (Bailee Madison, Bridge to Terabithia) and Maggie (Taylor Geare, Four Christmases).
Sam has a brother named Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal, Moonlight Mile), who is regarded as the black sheep of the Cahill family. Tommy has just been released from prison, where he was forced to spend several years after robbing a bank. The relationship between Sam and Tommy is a slightly tense one. The fact that their father Hank (Sam Shepard, Days of Heaven) clearly prefers Sam only makes things even more difficult.
Shortly after Sam ships out, his helicopter crashes and he is presumed dead. Grace mourns the loss of her husband and attempts to move on, while Tommy attempts to pull his life together and do what he can to help Grace and her children. During the process, Tommy and Grace begin to grow somewhat close to each other, which is a surprise to both of them. Alas, what they don't realize is that Sam is still alive, being held hostage by terrorists in Afghanistan. Will Sam survive his horrifying ordeal? If he does, will his family still be waiting for him when he comes home?
While Brothers is based on a Danish film of the same name (unseen by me as of the writing of this review), the story seems to fit comfortably into the resumé of director Jim Sheridan. From the beginning, Sheridan has been offering character-driven stories (the first few set in Ireland, the recent batch set in America) that often focus on families and relationships. While I frankly loathed Sheridan's previous film (the grating 50 Cent biopic Get Rich or Die Tryin'), Brothers is a thoughtful and involving effort that demonstrates a return to form for the director.
Given what little I knew of the plot before seeing the film, I half-expected it to be a overwrought melodrama centered around a complicated love triangle. Fortunately, it is not, which is somewhat remarkable considering just how easy it would have been to make it that sort of film. There are a number of sensationalistic traps this story could have fallen into, and I was impressed by how well it managed to avoid most of them in favor of telling a truthful story about real characters. This is particularly evident during the nerve-wracking climax, which flirts endlessly with melodrama but manages to stay the course and reach an honest resolution.
The casting of Maguire and Gyllenhaal was nothing short of inspired, as they seem not just like brothers in physical appearance but also in their mannerisms. Both are naturally soft-spoken actors who deliver their lines in a somewhat similar manner, but in moments of passion they veer off in different directions. In Brothers, Gyllenhaal becomes more noble as he become more proactive, seeming increasingly sincere as he takes a more active role in the lives of Grace and her children. The actor has a gift for playing "earnest" about as well as anyone and that gift is put to good use in this film. However, Maguire is the one who really impresses and hits some unexpected notes. Maguire's understated screen presence becomes genuinely terrifying when applied to such an afflicted, hard-edged character. Forget the finger-snapping James Dean imitation of Spider-Man 3; this Maguire character is infected with real venom.
The supporting cast is equally strong, led by a very good Natalie Portman as the woman stuck between these two troubled men. When I say "stuck" I do not mean that she has an inability to choose between them, but rather that they have placed her (intentionally or otherwise) in a tight corner that becomes very difficult to get out of safely. Sam Shepard brings surprising nuance to what could have been a one-dimensional part, while young actors Madison and Geare are exceptionally good in their roles as the children. Cary Mulligan (An Education) also turns up for a particularly memorable scene and Clifton Collins Jr. (Capote) brings an effective nervous energy to a small role.
What really impressed me about the film is the way that it takes time to consider the feelings and emotions of all of the characters. You may feel that one brother or the other is the "good" or "bad" guy at times, but it's never as simple as that. We aren't meant to root for or against these characters, we're simply meant to understand why they feel the way they do. There's one particularly shattering scene that takes place at the family dinner table, when one character makes a bold, irresponsible statement. Sheridan pauses, quietly examining the faces of everyone sitting around the table and allowing us to realize that this statement has affected all of them in entirely different ways. It's a powerful cinematic moment that works so well because of the work that has been put into the events that precede it.
The Blu-ray transfer is solid, highlighted the frequently moody visuals of the film. From a visual perspective, the film actually does have something of a European look, along with a handful of moments that almost seem to veer into noir territory. Blacks are deep and shading is excellent, while detail manages to be respectable enough. Facial detail fares best, as you can see every bit of stubble on the actors' faces. Flesh tones are warm and accurate. Audio is solid, with Thomas Newman's surprisingly aggressive original score getting a very strong mix (though I wasn't entirely crazy about all of the pop/rock songs employed throughout the film, including the middling, Golden Globe-nominated U2 ballad that plays over the credits). Supplements include an engaging audio commentary with director Jim Sheridan and two exceptional featurettes: "Remade in the USA" and "Jim Sheridan: Film and Family." The former explores the process of adapting the original film for American audiences while the latter looks at some of the running themes in Sheridan's work.
The first half of the film tends to drag a bit, as it's fairly obvious where the film is heading up to a certain point. The second half veers into some fairly dramatic territory that works very well, but the first half occasionally feels like it's just marking time and providing obligatory moments of character development in order to get to the interesting stuff. In addition, the film's concluding line of narration left a slightly sour taste in my mouth, as it has the same ring of pretentious obviousness that accompanied the closing bit of narration in Sam Mende's Jarhead (which also starred Gyllenhaal).
Brothers is a subtle, rewarding film that boasts strong performances (particularly from Maguire) and a strong screenplay. It's worth checking out.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 105 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated R