Joel's Review of Brothers
"Brothers" is a perfect example of how trailers and advertising can promise one story, yet deliver another unexpectedly, and fortunately. Capt. Sam Cahill (Tobey Maguire) goes off to fight in Afghanistan. His chopper crashes and he is presumed dead. His widow Grace (Natalie Portman) is left to raise their two daughters alone. Sam's brother Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal) steps in to help out and a romance seems to blossom. They discover that Sam is still alive. He returns and there's a dramatic and emotional showdown.
Yes, and no. As the film opens, Sam has not yet gone to war. He drives out to county lockup to pick up Tommy, who has just served time for robbing a bank. The reunited family sits down to dinner whereupon Tommy endures the disappointment of his father Hank (Sam Shepard), a Vietnam War veteran. Overseas, Sam is taken prisoner by a group of insurgents, locked away in cavernous cells and forced to commit an unspeakable act. His family, presuming him dead, tries their best to pick up the pieces. Grace keeps his wedding ring on a chain around her neck and refuses to open his in-case-of letter. Hank and Tommy reconcile as best they can. The girls, Isabelle (Bailee Madison) and Maggie (Taylor Geare), come to adore their uncle, who remodels their kitchen, takes them ice skating and engages them in snowball fights.
The film's chief tension is Sam's fate, but in the meantime, Tommy is becoming a persuasive stand-in. His relationship with the girls and Isabelle in particular progresses naturally and believably. Consider a scene in which the two discuss sibling rivalry. Tommy's empathy for Isabelle is necessary in his becoming a better person, getting over his bitterness toward his own father and recognizing the value of family. It also contributes convincingly to how the girls react when their father returns.
When Sam gets off the plane, he doesn't look quite right, staring intensely straight ahead as though the world could fall apart at any moment. His rigid shoulder posture has gone from the effect of subordination to out and out paranoia. He paces through his home in the middle of the night with a loaded gun in his hand. He rearranges the drinking glasses in a kitchen cabinet with precision. He notices how relatively happy his family has been in his absence and assumes the worst about Tommy and Grace, reacting alternately with perverse glee and volcanic anger. Yes, the two shared a kiss. But look at how the aftermath of that moment is written and performed by Gyllenhaal and Portman, not for titillation but for complete honesty.
There is an intriguing and dramatic contrast between the horrors that Sam experiences and Tommy's search for involvement on parole, the former portraying a thorough lack of human decency and the latter championing it. In an effective turn as a reformed scumbag, Gyllenhaal ably carries most of the weight until Sam's return, whereupon Maguire offers some of the best work of his career, putting everyone in the room on edge as they try to tread lightly around his psychosis. David Benioff's adapted screenplay never allows glimpses at what could become of these characters, only that a very real and obscure danger hangs in the air that no one is entirely prepared to answer to.
Gyllenhaal and Maguire are two actors of similar look and stature and a film in which they play brothers seemed inevitable. They compliment each other well, with Maguire lending a wiriness and discipline in his performance that counterbalances Gyllenhaal's toughness and heart. Portman is also great, letting her character get attached to Tommy gradually while carefully gauging where her emotions take her, communicating them wisely in scenes where her devastation over Sam floods her decisions.
Ideologically, the honourable soldier fights to end fighting with the hope that not a soul in the free world will ever experience the things they experience. Attempting to put what they endure into words seems an impossible task. Untold cities of despair, hatred and loss may be constructed inside those who undergo torture and find themselves forced to live with it. "You can't train a person to watch somebody die," one character observes, implying that while the part of Sam that values life has been violently disrupted, his loved ones will never know how it became so.
"Brothers" is one of the best of the year, a narrative that took me over with measured force and left me feeling uneasy. It is a film about how post-traumatic stress disorder can affect not only the soldier who suffers it, but the people he cares for, those who patted him on the back and called him a hero as he took his leave. Like Staff Sergeant William James in "The Hurt Locker" earlier this year, Sam can't adapt to civilian life once he is taken out of theatre. "No one understands," he explains to his commanding officer. Even Hank, the veteran, can't tell Sam the words that will make what he has experienced go away. To a painful extent, it never will.