Movies: Brothers * * * *
Published 22/01/2010 | 05:00
Jim Sheridan's Brothers has had a fairly torrid time of it critically speaking in America. It has suffered somewhat by constant comparisons to the Danish film (Suzanne Bier's Brodre) by which it was inspired.
But while some of the criticisms might be justifiable, overall the movie has been rather shabbily treated, and it is a whole lot better than perusals of the New York Times and New Yorker might lead you to suspect. Brothers may even earn Tobey Maguire an Oscar nomination, and he and Jake Gyllenhaal deliver fine performances as the middle-American siblings in question.
Sam (Maguire) and Tommy (Gyllenhaal) Cahill have grown up in the formidable shadow of their father Hank (Sam Shepard), a retired US Marine and Vietnam veteran, and have turned out very differently. Sam is a dutiful, quiet young man who has married his high-school sweetheart Grace (Natalie Portman) and followed his father into the Marines, where he has excelled, but poor Tommy is another matter entirely. Their mother died when the boys were young, and Tommy has struggled ever since to attract his father's attention. Sam is the apple of Hank's eye, and he can barely stand the sight of Tommy, who has rushed to fulfil his father's low expectations.
As the film opens, Tommy has just been released from prison and Sam has gone to collect him. In spite of their differences and their dad's divisive influence the brothers have remained close, and this bond will be sorely tested in the months and years to come. Nobody -- not even Sam -- quite trusts Tommy, but he's about to get a chance to prove himself.
When Sam is posted to Afghanistan, he is presumed dead when the helicopter in which he is travelling crashes. As Grace struggles to deal with her grief and care for her two young daughters, Tommy feels impelled to help in any way that he can. He renovates Grace's kitchen, bonds with the children and helps to take care of them. His father's baleful stare seems to reproach him for daring to live while his infinitely more worthy brother has died, but the new responsibility seems to be doing Tommy good.
What none of them know is that Sam is not dead at all. Held in captivity and brutalised by insurgents, Sam is eventually rescued by US forces and returns home to his shocked but delighted family. But Sam is a shadowy spectre of himself, paranoid, withdrawn and wracked with guilt about the death of one of his comrades. He becomes fixated on the notion that Grace and Tommy have become romantically involved, and the problem is he's not entirely wrong.
Soberly but handsomely shot, Sheridan's film is the kind of engrossing adult drama that you don't get confronted with all that often these days. In a way it's less about war than the consequences for the young men who are asked to do the dirty work and, in this respect, with its blue collar setting, it's reminiscent of Michael Cimino's Deer Hunter. In both themes and style it's an altogether less ambitious film than that 70s epic, but it does make you think about what we ask soldiers to do and how we subsequently treat them, and the ensemble acting is extremely powerful.
Though it's no longer his day job, Sam Shepard is a compelling screen actor, and pulls no punches in an unflattering role. Jake Gyllenhaal is a very intelligent actor, and brings real emotion to a part that is bound to attract less attention than Maguire's. He too is up to the task, and his post-war meltdown is most affecting.
Bier's film examined the shifting roles that can occur in families when there's a vacancy for the part of the good and dutiful child, and critics in the US have suggested that Sheridan's Brothers does not flesh out its characters enough to address these complex themes.
It's true that Tommy's conversion to the good seems a little sudden, and Natalie Portman's character isn't really fleshed out at all. But all the same there's a Shakespearean darkness to this family saga, and Jim Sheridan handles his story very well.