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Jake Gyllenhaal & Natalie Portman with Taylor Geare, bottom left, & Bailee Madison in BROTHERS (Photo: Lorey Sebastian)

Directed by
Jim Sheridan
Produced by
Ryan Kavanaugh, Sigurjon Sighvatsson & Michael De Luca
Written by David Benioff, based on the film Brodre by Susanne Bier & Anders Thomas Jensen
Released by Lionsgate
USA. 110 min. Rated R
Tobey Maguire, Jake Gyllenhaal, Natalie Portman, Sam Shepard, Patrick Flueger, Mare Winningham, Bailee Madison & Taylor Geare

A family dinner marks a farewell and a welcome home, the opposite trajectories for two brothers. Captain Sam Cahill (Tobey Maguire) of the Marines is getting ready to return to war. The high school football star, he married his sweetheart, the pretty cheerleader Grace (Natalie Portman), and she will again hold down the home front with their two lovely daughters. The other guest of honor is his younger brother, Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal), who’s just been released out of jail for robbery, and wastes no time getting drunk and disorderly. Sam Shepard, the author of such competitive brother plays as True West, adds crackling resonance to his portrayal of their Vietnam War vet father Hank. His needling, differential treatment of his sons is the unbalanced fulcrum in the brothers’ seesaw relationship that roils throughout the film.

Tommy continues his drunken, irresponsible ways, while in Afghanistan Sam’s helicopter is shot down, and he is reported dead, but he has actually been captured and kept hidden in the Afghan mountains as a valuable prize. At home, the family falls apart as Grace sinks into depression, causing Tommy to awkwardly step up and to eventually be forgiven by all.

While Tommy enjoys his first bout with a normal life, Sam undergoes extreme torture by the Afghanis, who writer David Benioff portrays with the same subtlety as in his adaptation of The Kite Runner. After his rescue, Sam appears as a boney, resurrected ghost to his family. Strained feelings, compounded with sexual tensions, swirl around them, feeding Sam’s scary, wild-eyed transformation into paranoia and irrational outbursts (jolting compared to Maguire’s usual mien on film). The uneasy adjustment is particularly difficult for his buffeted, confused children, who feel as comfortable with Uncle Tommy around as their mom does. What unfolds is almost a case study of post-traumatic stress disorder, but one that seems to be solved by an embrace. The histrionics keep the film short of the effectiveness of more restrained war-at-home message dramas, like Kimberly Peirce’s Stop-Loss or Oren Moverman’s The Messenger.

In his first work set in the American heartland (filmed entirely in New Mexico), director James Sheridan has made some sure-footed visual and casting choices (the girls are as expressive as the children from In America). Cinematographer Frederick Elmes’s camera again catches the telling details of small-town America as he did in such films as Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm and Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers. But the very close adaptation of Susanne Bier’s widely distributed 2004 Danish film is too squarely Americanized—the much younger, shaggy brother now has less swagger here, and his fraught sexual tension with his brother’s wife is reduced to one comforting toke over the line.

Sheridan strives to make Brothers an update of Hal Ashbys Coming Home for a new generation and a new war frequently compared to the earlier one, with much sympathy for the emotionally wounded warrior. But he betrays his Irish roots with U2 songs as the touchstone on the soundtrack, ignoring references that cry out for Bruce Springsteen selections. These are blue-collar guys—Sam personifies the haunted, returned soldier of “Born in the U.S.A.,” even 25 years later—and the fraternal competition is as eternal as the lyrics from “Highway Patrolman”: “Nothin’ feels better than blood on blood…I catch him when he’s strayin’ like any brother would/Man turns his back on his family he just ain’t no good.” Nora Lee Mandel
December 4, 2009



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