With film release dates set months in advance, it was mere coincidence that Brothers was released in the same week that the president announced his plan to send more troops to Afghanistan. It's a sad coincidence, given the subject of the film. Even sadder is the fact that Brothers is still timely, even though it is based on a Danish film, Brødre, made five years ago, when the war in Afghanistan was already three years old. Has it really been eight years? Brothers is not a war movie, per se, and not about the Afghan conflict, per se, but is rather a movie about the effects of war on the individuals who fight, and the families who stay at home. It's about the casualties there and here, and after this week, there will, sadly, be more of both.
In the Cahill family, Sam (Tobey Maguire) is the good son, and Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal) is the ne-er-do-well. Tommy is released from prison a few days before Sam is set to be deployed to Afghanistan. Their father Hank (Sam Shepherd), a retired Marine, makes no secret of his pride in Sam, or that he can barely stand to look at Tommy. When Sam is reported killed in action, Tommy tries to straighten up and help Sam's wife Grace (Natalie Portman), and her two young daughters (Bailee Madison and Taylor Geare). That Sam is not really dead is no secret -- the movie reveals early on that he is taken prisoner by the Taliban, and tortured, and forced to do things he would not ordinarily do.
Brothers, directed by Jim Sheridan (*In the Name of the Father*) uses this war -- but it could be any war -- as a vehicle for a somber family drama with some heavy themes. There is the sibling rivalry between Sam and Tommy, and the father who clearly plays favorites, perhaps to the detriment of both sons. There are second chances and second lives, as the brothers switch roles in the aftermath of Sam's traumatic experience in Afghanistan. There is, of course, the question of Sam's mental health, and the damaging effects it has on his family, and particularly his children.
Although there is melodrama aplenty in Brothers, Sheridan has effectively stripped the movie down to its emotional bones, with little music, and little else to serve as evocative affective signposts. Instead, the film trades heavily on the tensions between characters, and the charged atmosphere that turns the Cahill home into a tinderbox. Maguire and Gyllanhaal look enough alike to pass for brothers, and they do most of the heavy lifting in Brothers. Their roles could have been interestingly swapped, with Maguire playing the reckless and feckless Tommy and Gyllenhaal as the straight arrow who gets shot down. I found Maguire a little implausible as a Marine, but his performance is effectively creepy, and Brothers wrings a fair amount of suspense out of Sam's unstable temperament. Especially noteworthy, however, is Bailee Madison as the older daughter Isabelle. Madison is only ten, but her performance in Brothers is exceptionally good. The emotionally labile Isabelle is a pivotal character, and she tends to overshadow Portman's Grace, who mostly cries, although she does so for different reasons throughout the film.
Except for Sam's time as a prisoner or war, Brothers pretty much steers clear of politics, to the point of being downright apolitical, and it really has nothing much to say on the subject of the war in Afghanistan, or the lives of ordinary Afghans, or military operations there, or US policy. It doesn't *have* to say anything, I suppose, given that any old war would do for the purposes of this film's story. But that sense of nonspecificity, a kind of generic generality, coupled with the specifically traumatizing and extraordinary events that lead to Sam's crisis, make Brothers feel like it's going to some pains to not be about what it's really about. That's too bad, because the ordinary everyday horrors of that war -- the ones experienced by too many soldiers -- are quite bad enough. The movie also ends rather abruptly, which adds to the sense that there's really much more to be said.
What it does say, it says well. Brothers avoids easy sentiment and easy resolution: it is sometimes shocking, frequently moving, and always sincere, quietly observing the noisy, frightening drama of a family trying to keep it together when the center cannot hold.