Movie Review: Brothers
By Matthew Huntley
December 14, 2009
There are some very powerful moments found in Jim Sheridan's Brothers, which get buoyed by one significant problem. The film is a remake of Susanne Bier's acclaimed Brodre, from Denmark, which is unseen by me, but I'd be curious to know if it suffers from the same issue as its American counterpart.
Don't get me wrong—Sheridan's version had me the entire time, but just when it peaks dramatically, it ends too early and there seems to be an entire act missing. By the time the credits rolled, I was so captivated that I wanted the film to go on longer. The fact that it stops doesn't feel like a betrayal so much as a disappointment.
In the film, Tobey Maguire and Jake Gyllenhaal play brothers Sam and Tommy. Sam is older, more responsible and a captain in the Marines. He's also the favorite of the boys' military father (Sam Shepard), who calls Sam a hero but speaks with shame and disgust toward Tommy, who has just been released from prison. Whereas Tommy is wild and a bit of a wanderer, Sam is traditional and married to his high school sweetheart, Grace (Natalie Portman). They have two daughters together, Isabelle (Bailee Madison) and Maggie (Taylor Geare).
When the film opens, Sam is aware he's being re-deployed to Afghanistan, so he asks Tommy to look after Grace and the girls. When his unit crashes down behind enemy lines, Sam is presumed dead and he's given a funeral. But we know Sam is alive and being held by Afghan extremists, who demand he and another soldier (Patrick Flueger) tape a message for America's leaders.
Tommy, meanwhile, starts to spend more time with Grace and the girls. Along with ice skating and celebrating Grace's birthday, Tommy gathers a bunch of old friends to renovate the kitchen. Expectedly, Tommy and Grace's mutual loneliness starts to impact their emotions and behavior, which begins to manifest itself physically when...Grace receives a call that Sam is still alive.
I will not reveal what happens after Sam comes home to his wife, kids and brother, but the screenplay by David Benioff contains more truth and less contrived drama than we initially perceive. As soon as we think we know where the story is taking us, it goes some place else — some place better and more effective — and we don't necessarily feel like it's being manipulative, especially when it could have easily gone in that direction. The film is honest, intelligent and elevates itself above the made-for-TV platform it lays down at the beginning.
But just when the film achieves its highest momentum, it ends abruptly, and it ultimately feels incomplete. There is an entire conflict related to Sam's service in Afghanistan that's only briefly resolved and it feels much too quick. The film sort of cheats itself out of more story and deeper dramatic payoff by wrapping things up with simplified dialogue. It does this earlier when Tommy explains how he makes amends for his past crime. Rather than show us this scene, we only hear Tommy talk about it, which seems like a wasted opportunity for some really strong dialogue and acting.
It's not typical to fault a movie for being too short, but Brothers fits that description, though it's not without value. The film contains some of the best performances I've seen from Maguire, Gyllenhaal and Portman. You sense they truly understand their characters' conditions, both in their hearts and minds, and they fully embody their pain and confusion. These are marks not only of good actors, but also a good director. Sheridan specializes in stories about people, and just like In America, he's also able to garner some remarkable performances from the little girls, especially Madison as the older sister. She holds her own next to her adult co-stars, but the adults don't cater to her. Each actor lets the other play their part.
I recommend Brothers for its intense drama and superb performances, but I can't forget its abrupt ending. It feels too unresolved, and although I wasn't necessarily looking for complete closure, I wanted more, not least because the film becomes so engrossing up to that point. It's like Sheridan began making a strong and powerful drama but then chose not to finish it. Still, we're grateful and appreciative of what he does give us, and it means something we still want to keep watching.