Jim Sheridan’s movies have always been about the costs of assimilation, from his stunning debut with My Left Foot to the immigration story In America. His latest film, Brothers, is the kind of meaty melodrama that’s ideal for his kind of story. It’s a tightly focused character study about the toils of war and the emotional scars that come with physical ones, and though it’s not a great film in the sense of one that will become a classic for the ages, that has more to do with the fact that it strives to be a smaller human drama instead of trying to be the defining war film of its time. An inordinate and unfair amount of pressure is put on films about the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to somehow be epic, all-encompassing, and representative of our era in a way we didn’t think possible. But Brothers is a well-acted and compelling film that’s refreshing because it simply treats the war and its attendant arguments as a way of life. In other words, it’s a prime example of what it means to tell a story instead of preach on a treatise.
Capt. Sam Cahill (Tobey Maguire) is a quiet but happy member of the Marine Corps, with a wife, Grace (Natalie Portman), and two young daughters, Isabelle (Bailee Madison) and Maggie (Taylor Geare). He’s based at the (fictional) Fort Mahlus, which is in some generic Midwestern state given to heavy snows in winter and pickup trucks all year round. There are American flags everywhere and signs that support the troops, and the vaguely electric score from Thomas Newman helps Sheridan walk a fine line between selling the gung-ho atmosphere and seeing it for the marketing it is.
Sam’s first mission is to pick up his younger brother, Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal), who’s just been released from prison after serving a brief stint for armed robbery. Tommy’s first meal out of prison is a fine example of what Sheridan wants to do with the film: namely, push the actors together and let the scene build on its own energy. Sam and Tommy’s father, Hank (Sam Shepard), and stepmother, Elsie (Mare Winningham), are in attendance, and though Tommy and his ex-Marine dad eventually, predictably, get into a shouting match that ends the dinner, Sheridan isn’t in any hurry to rush things. The tight, industrious framing from cinematographer Frederick Elmes keeps things slightly uneasy, and Gyllenhaal’s physical tics — like the way he unconsciously guards his plate with one arm on the table — are excellent at labeling him the outsider still adjusting to a new world.
Soon enough, though, Sam ships out to Afghanistan again, leaving Tommy to fend for himself and occasionally check in on Grace, and this is where the story really begins. (I rarely feel the need to issue a spoiler warning, but the nature of the film is such that it’s impossible to analyze without discussing basic plot points that some people would rather not know, so there you go.) Sam’s helicopter crashes and he’s reported dead, sending Grace and Tommy into a spiral of grief that consumes their lives and redefines everything, but the truth is that Sam and a private from the chopper have been taken prisoner by a group of Afghan soldiers, who proceed to torture and starve them for three months. This is the bulk of the film’s middle third, and the most wrenching in every way. Watching Tommy and Grace learn to deal with their grief separately and then together, forging a new kind of family to take care of the girls, is heartbreaking, and Sheridan avoids what must have been an easy temptation to inject too much falsely manipulative drama in their relationship. Perhaps it’s because the film, adapted by David Benioff, is based on a 2004 Danish film by Susanne Bier, and Sheridan’s loath to wreck an already good story.
The film’s international origins keep it from unfolding with the neat beats of American moviemaking, too. Brothers has the pacing and staggered revelations of a novel, and Sheridan’s focus is never on what will happen next but how it will affect the constantly shifting equilibrium. Sam’s trials in Afghanistan are gruesome, but Sheridan doesn’t push the film to make any easy judgments about the situation or to label one side more or less right or victorious than the other. It simply embraces the chaos and horror of being tortured and seeking revenge. The inability to pick a clear enemy is reflected in that first dinner conversation when the little girls earnestly inform Tommy that their daddy “only shoots bad guys,” and when he asks which ones are the bad guys, Isabelle considers a moment before responding, “The ones with the beards.”
And I really have to stop myself from talking more about what happens, and to whom, and why, because I just want to give it all away and hold this story up to the light for everyone. But I won’t. Suffice it to say that things do not play out the way you would expect them to, at any point, and that Sheridan’s film is a worthy examination of grief and forgiveness, as well as the casual moments that wind up destroying our lives. Gyllenhaal and Maguire are believable enough as brothers, though it’s Gyllenhaal’s chemistry with Shepard that provides the most energy. It’s nice to see Maguire stretching his legs with better material, too; you have to go back to 2000’s Wonder Boys, years before he ever became Spider-Man, to find him paired with a really good script. He’s got a few moments here that feel close to overheated, but then, Sheridan’s shooting for something a bit melodramatic even as it’s rooted in a very real story of loss.
Brothers might not be a knockout — there’s a question about whether a remake could ever top the emotional punch of the original — but it is a strong, solid movie with some genuinely good moments. It’s well-told, with Sheridan capturing engaging performances drawn from Benioff’s screenplay. Benioff’s wonderful novel City of Thieves evoked the vast grimness of war and the joy of survival by focusing on a small set of characters, and that’s the tack he, Sheridan, and the rest of the cast and crew have taken here. Sheridan isn’t setting out to make the be-all of modern war movies, but a good movie with a war at its heart. And by not trying to be all things, it speaks to everything.