Brothers is that rare type of film; one that feels real and true, never forcing itself to conform to the expectations of what a movie should contain. It feels less like a Hollywood drama and more like a European one; which makes sense considering that it’s a remake of Susanne Bier’s 2004 film Brødre. How often do we see Americanised remakes suck the life out of their source material and turned into production line sludge (City of Angels, No Reservations, anything based on a Japanese horror film)? Brothers is not one of those movies.
It is a film about the in-between moments; it’s not about events but relationships. Conversations spill from one scene into another; we don’t always see the start or end of each. The film is not afraid to have moments of joy and humour during times of tragedy. Some sequences take place at a dinner table and last longer than we’re used to (outside of Inglourious Basterds anyway). Director Jim Sheridan is in no rush; he has an opportunity to present modern familial grief in all its brutal form, but he never slips into melodrama. I can’t remember the last time dealing with death was portrayed so convincingly on the screen.
As you may have noticed by now, I’m dancing around the film’s plot. It’s not exactly a picture about surprises; it’s about dealing with revelations. That being said, I couldn’t live with unveiling too many of the film’s plot details. I’ll do my best regardless. Tobey Maguire stars as Captain Sam Cahill, a soldier with a loving wife named Grace (Natalie Portman) and two gorgeous daughters (Bailee Madison, Taylor Geare). Before shipping out for his latest stint in Afghanistan, he picks up his brother Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal) from prison, where he’s recently spent some time for armed robbery. Tommy has no real interest in disproving himself as the family’s black sheep, burdening himself upon Grace while Sam is away. That is, until a soldier and army chaplain come to her door with the news that her husband has died in the service of his country.
Thus ends the relatively spoilery section of the review. To know the above is to know the film’s first ten minutes (or conversely, to have seen the film’s trailer). Now, my desire to hide the remainder of the film’s plot is not to shield its many twists and turns. You may even be able to predict what happens, but I doubt you’d be able to guess how, and you certainly wouldn’t be able to predict the execution of these moments.
Perhaps the film’s biggest flaw is in its depiction of war, and primarily, of America’s Afghan enemies. Thankfully, the majority of the picture takes place in Grace and Sam’s home, specifically around the dinner table and in the kitchen, as I’m sure real stories like this take place around dinner tables and kitchens across America (and much of the rest of the world). With so many soldiers marrying young (to provide their partners and family with military benefits), we’ve seen the advent of a new generation of young war widows. Portman could have so easily been farcical in this role; wrenching out every drop of emotion as she tells her children that daddy isn’t coming home. She doesn’t; she never slips. The same can be said for Maguire and Gyllenhaal. Although it’s jarring at first to imagine the former as a soldier and the latter as a criminal, they sell it by downplaying everything.
Films that deal with grief are almost entirely populated by Oscar-hungry actors mugging to the nth degree (see: Sean Penn in Mystic River). I’ve never seen Maguire, Gyllenhaal or Portman in a film and thought, “now that was a great performance.” Here, all three of them, give amazing performances. It’s the long-awaited graduation of three talents from interchangeable pretty faces to great actors. The trio are aided by a whole slate of solid supporting characters, from Sam Shepard’s guilt stricken father, to Clifton Collins Jr. as a sympathetic fellow soldier, to Carey Mulligan as a fellow war widow in mourning, to Bailee Madison and Taylor Geare who not once attempt to play their roles older than their age, yet can still hold their own in the more intense moments with their elders.
The film is subtle, and quiet, and unexpected. It does indeed crescendo to a potentially horrifying climax, but not without earning it. And it doesn’t waste it. Sheridan takes a Danish story and not only makes it appropriate for post-911 America, but also the rest of the world. Dealing with grief is universal, and it’s rarely done as tastefully or truthfully as it is here. It’s the kind of film that reminds us why films are so important; it tells a story rarely told, with respect to the people who experience it every day. It honours real people, and the actors never once seem in it for themselves; merely vessels to bring this tale to the audience. The characters feel as rich and real as any you’ve met in real life, and as such, you adore spending time with them, and eventually, grieve along with them. This film is a cathartic experience. As far as war movies go, The Hurt Locker may have won the Oscars, but Brothers deserves to win the hearts.