Director Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot, In The Name of the Father, In America) once again ponders the intricacies of family, love and masculinity in a compelling character drama. Remaking the 2004 Danish film Brødre, Sheridan and screenwriter David Benioff (The Kite Runner) faithfully translate Susanne Bier’s original film, while reworking it into the story of an American family.
On the eve of his return to Afghanistan, Captain Sam Cahill (Toby Maguire) collects his younger brother, Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal) from prison to join in the family farewell dinner. Happily married to his high school sweetheart Grace (Natalie Portman) and the father of two bubbly girls, Isabelle (Bailee Madison) and Maggie (Taylor Geare), Sam’s life is the polar opposite to the tattooed and troubled, Tommy. Their imposing, Vietnam veteran father Hank (Sam Shepherd) takes every opportunity to emphasise this fact, while their stepmother Elsie (Mare Winningham) quietly mediates.
This carefully constructed portrait of a working class, military family is shattered when Sam’s helicopter is shot down and he is presumed dead. Wracked with grief, the Cahill’s are set adrift until Tommy takes it upon himself to renovate Grace’s broken down kitchen. Sheridan spends time studying this reconnecting and reconstructing family, before reintroducing a rescued, ghostly Sam, who is tortured by his experience in captivity.
Quite literally a kitchen sink drama, Brothers eschews the returning soldier platitudes as well as the conventional love triangle. Instead Sheridan sticks to the characters, letting the story unfold through some truly exceptional performances. Maguire is compelling as the haunted and increasingly obsessive Sam, while Gyllenhaal perfectly balances his arc from petulance to responsibility. And although a little too much is made of Grace’s beauty, Portman convinces as the young mother and grief stricken wife. However the breakout performance comes from the young Madison, who steals scene after scene from her older counterparts.
If home is where the hearth (as well as the heart) is, then the renovated kitchen provides a potent symbol at the center of Brothers. With this in place, it is unfortunate that Sheridan felt it necessary to stress the core relationship in the film’s climactic scene (just in case you missed the title). This and the rushed, all too earnest ending drain the film’s impact somewhat, but Sheridan still manages to impress with his powerful, character-driven storytelling.
“Brothers,” the latest in a lineup of home-from-the-war movies that extends back to “Stop-Loss” and “In the Valley of Elah,” is frustrating because it misuses so much talent. Tobey Maguire, deeply miscast, plays Sam, the dutiful Marine son of an alcoholic father (Sam Shepard) who is presumed dead in Afghanistan. Natalie Portman is Sam’s high school sweetheart wife, and Jake Gyllenhaal, in the film’s only piece of believable acting, is Sam’s ne’er-do-well brother who is helping raise his two kids. Then Sam unexpectedly returns, and his violent degeneration consists mostly of breaking things and shouting. Jim Sheridan, who in better times is capable of being as good as it gets with actors – in “My Left Foot” and “In the Name of the Father” – directed from a script by David Benioff.
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