Emotional Family Dynamics Fill the Screen
Director Jim Sheridan’s films usually offer viewers a powerful story with some surprising elements and great casting. Brothers, starring Tobey Maguire, Jake Gyllenhaal and Natalie Portman, is no exception. Examples of Sheridan's past critical successes include My Left Foot: The Story of Christy Brown (1989), In the Name of the Father (1993), The Boxer (1997) and In America (2002). Brothers, a remake of the 2004 Danish drama Brødre, contains a similar storyline to the original movie, but Sheridan’s cast and his ability to bring out amazing performances makes Brothers feel like an entirely different film.
At the beginning of Brothers, Army Captain Sam Cahill (Maguire) is about to deploy to Afghanistan once again. Although Sam regrets leaving his loving family -- wife Grace (Natalie Portman) and daughters Maggie (Taylor Geare) and Isabelle (Bailee Madison) -- he’s a die-hard Marine anxious to get back to his men.
Fortunately, just before Sam leaves, his younger delinquent brother Tommy (Gyllenhaal) has been paroled and can keep an eye on the family. Grace isn’t too sure about this since she doesn’t like Tommy. His father Hank (Sam Shepard) also has little use for Tommy, and confrontation between them begins the first night he’s home at a family dinner. Hank lets Tommy know in no uncertain terms that he doesn’t measure up to his “hero” brother, but stepmother Elsie (Mare Winningham) calms Hank down as Sam storms out the door. That dinner scene gives Grace a better insight into the family dynamics.
Shortly after Sam leaves, Tommy starts showing up more for a handout than to lend a hand. When officers arrive to inform Grace that Sam has been killed in the war, Tommy and Grace comfort each other as best they can. Uncle Tommy becomes the fun guy who takes the girls ice skating and wrestles with them in the leaves. Grace has a hard time coping; even refusing to read the letter Sam had left to be delivered “in case.”
Meanwhile, Sam is not dead but taken captive with another soldier. They’re both tortured excessively. Later, Sam is the only one rescued and sent home. He’s a broken man who’s psychologically damaged. He accuses Grace and Tommy of having an affair and even acts out violently around his family and kids.
Sam has always been in control of his life, but after being captured he lost his emotional compass. Maguire (Spider-Man) seems to make easy work of his complicated and struggling character. His fits of rage come across as extremely believable as do his heartfelt scenes when Sam is literally brainwashed into going against everything he ever stood for. “His whole life is shattered -- or at least the construct of his life: his ideas and ideals, and what’s important and what he’s built his life on,” Maguire said. “Everything is just shaken.”
Gyllenhaal is equally impressive in displaying the wide character arc of Tommy’s persona. Feeling like a misfit and unloved, Tommy has only his big brother who loves him unconditionally, and Gyllenhaal (Jarhead) shows this in several scenes where it’s apparent Tommy can never measure up to his father or expect to have a family life like Sam’s. Yet once Sam leaves, Tommy gets a taste of what caring for and nurturing a real family is like. He then blossoms into a carefree and responsible man.
Portman’s (Closer) role may seem trivial because she must play cliché moments within the story, but in those intense scenes where she has no dialogue, she excels in showing us the wounded, confused, frightened woman and mother Grace has become.
Shepard (All the Pretty Horses), an amazing actor, can make us think he’s a billboard. Winningham -- currently terrific in the musical Bonnie & Clyde at the La Jolla Playhouse -- has a small role but serves it well. Both young girls get a lot of screen time here and are great in their portrayals, especially Madison (Bridge to Terabithia) who is wonderful in a very difficult scene during one of the family dinners.
With such a high caliber cast, we expect Brothers to be a good film. While this movie will probably be viewed as another movie with an opinion about the war, it’s a fine story made more enjoyable by Sheridan, whose skills dissect the emotional aspects of people so well. Brothers helps us understand the joys family members can share as well as how their deep pain can branch out like a tree and poison everything in its path.
(Released by Lionsgate and rated “R” for language and some disturbing violent content.)
Review also posted at www.reviewexpress.com.