Running time 110 minutes
Written by David Benioff
Directed by Jim Sheridan
Starring Natalie Portman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Tobey Maguire, Sam Shepard, Mare Winningham
Brothers is the latest in a long string of “back from the war and wish I was dead” movies, following on the heels of the still-fresh and far superior The Messenger. An unnecessary remake of a 2004 Danish film with the same title by Susanne Bier, it’s a Cain-and-Abel drama transferred to small-town America about a good brother named Sam (Tobey Maguire) who goes off to Afghanistan at the same time his bad brother, Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal), returns home from prison. A soap opera ensues with more clichés than one movie can survive.
The two stars look so much alike that at times it’s hard to tell who’s who and which is which. You believe they are brothers, but the buck stops there. Sam is a Marine captain and the apple of his family’s eye. Clean-cut and dedicated to the military, he is headed for his fourth tour of duty in Afghanistan, leaving behind his wife, Grace (Natalie Portman); two daughters; and parents who worship him (Sam Shepard and the wonderful, wasted Mare Winningham). Tensions brew before Sam even boards the transport. Grace, who does not share her husband’s loyalty to a second-rate war nobody understands, is not happy to be left alone with no job and two kids to raise by herself, and everything is doubly daunting thanks to the gung-ho family patriarch, a former Marine who considers Sam a hero and regards Tommy, a tattooed slacker who has served time for armed robbery, as a good-for-nothing family disgrace. Grace, a former cheerleader with ample pluck, does her best to cope, but when Sam is seriously wounded in action and then reported dead, the volatile, irresponsible Tommy takes over his brother’s duties and becomes inappropriately romantically attracted to his sister-in-law. What the Cahill family doesn’t know is that Sam is not dead, just captured and tortured by the Taliban along with a fellow Marine from his hometown. While Sam is starved and buried in a hole, Tommy is painting Grace’s kitchen. Forced at gunpoint to kill his cellmate under threat of death, Sam sacrifices his friend’s life for his own—a decision from which he never recovers. By the time he gets rescued and sent home to his shocked family, he’s so psychologically damaged and physically emaciated that now it is his turn to seek the love, acceptance and forgiveness brother Tommy used to crave. Overwhelmed by guilt, shame and paranoia fueled by the suspicion that Grace and his brother became lovers while he was gone, Sam inspires fear and anxiety in the whole family, and all we can do is wait for events to build to a tragic, near-fatal and inevitable conclusion.
The venerable Irish director Jim (My Left Foot, In the Name of the Father, In America) Sheridan’s talent for creating tight, emotional films filled with domestic moral dilemmas seems to have curdled. Brothers addresses the effects of a pointless and unpopular war on the sanity of the men who are fighting it, and on the stunned and confused families who are waiting for them to come home, but there isn’t much psychology in it, and very little contextual drama to unravel. Natalie Portman glows. Sam Shepard glowers and rants. During Sam’s absence from home, the brothers, for all intents and purposes, switch identities. This leaves Mr. Gyllenhaal too abruptly charming as Tommy, and the miscast Mr. Maguire, so wimpy and genteel throughout as Sam, suddenly becomes consumed with such uncontrollable rage and jealousy that he seems subject to fits. These changes are too swift and alarming to be believable. The contrived script by David Benioff fails to strongly develop character, forcing the cast to do more reacting than acting in a stale movie that is less drama than melodrama.