Tobey Maguire plays Sam Cahill, a captain in the Marines. Sam is a devoted family man, and the early scenes show him in happy times with his wife Grace (Natalie Portman) and their two young daughters. He’s only a few days away from being shipped off to Afghanistan, but first he must pick up his black sheep brother Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal) from jail. Grace has never liked Tommy (the fact that he robbed a bank doesn’t help), but Sam insists that his duty as a brother is just as important as his duty as a soldier. He even defends Tommy from the criticism of their father Hank (Sam Shepard), a retired Marine who clearly favors the son who followed in his footsteps.
In Afghanistan, Sam is captured by the Taliban and subjected to all kinds of physical and psychological abuse. The military presumes him dead and sends messengers to deliver the news to Grace. Her grief – as well as his own – is enough to propel Tommy onto a new track. He becomes more responsible, tries to act as a father figure to the girls, and offers enough support to Grace that she teeters toward using him as a romantic replacement for her husband. Then Sam is found to be alive and returns home. In order to survive, he has had to do some pretty horrific things. One in particular haunts him. He’s not the same. Picking up on Tommy’s newfound role in the family, Sam begins to suspect that his brother and his wife became an item while he was gone. In saner times, he might have been able to handle this appropriately, but the trauma of his war experience has turned him into a time bomb.
Brothers is the kind of movie that asks you to read between the lines. The subject matter is war, and how sometimes (particularly in the brutal war against terrorism) soldiers often don’t come home, even after they’ve come home. The experience changes them so profoundly that they are not the same after leaving combat, and readjustment to normal life is difficult at best. The film shows this in fascinating ways, most notably the manner in which it cuts back and forth between Sam’s harrowing torture in Afghanistan and Grace’s attempt to go on with domestic life for the sake of her daughters. While he’s experiencing profound horrors, she is ice skating and enjoying a remodeled kitchen and attending birthday parties. The subtle suggestion is that both Sam and Grace are, in their own way, being tortured.
They both have secrets too – hers about her momentary attraction to Tommy, his about what he did to survive. Hers is easier to confess. She was lonely, missed her husband, and found solace in the blood relative who came to remind her of him. Sam, on the other hand, has trouble looking his wife and children in the eyes knowing what he had to do, even though his actions were both a reaction to psychological stress as well as a bottom line desire to get back to the family he loves so dearly. He has difficulty reconciling what he had to do with who he fundamentally is.
The solidarity between the Cahill brothers is intriguing as well, and this theme underlies everything else in the film. Tommy begins the movie down on his luck and helped by Sam; he ends it by trying to help Sam find his way back. While the issues between Sam and Grace are more obvious, the movie is called Brothers for a reason: it ultimately says something about the need to rely on family when the chips are genuinely, truly down.
I had no clue Tobey Maguire had this kind of performance in him. He’s usually so laid back on screen, with his mellow speech and his hangdog expressions. Granted, Maguire showed range with Seabiscuit, but here he plays someone who slowly – and against his will - becomes unhinged. Some of the story’s later scenes could have tipped over into melodrama, but the authenticity of Maguire’s performance keeps things believable. He’s intense, and dark, and yet still very human.
Natalie Portman is called upon to show more subtle changes of mood, which she does skillfully. Just look at the moment where Grace has a surprise birthday party thrown in her honor during the time her husband is presumed dead. At first, she appears wistful, realizing that Sam is not there for this day. Then she silently sucks up all the pain and puts on her happy face for the girls. I admire the way Portman shows us how Grace puts up a façade while still allowing us to be fully aware of the actual emotions she’s feeling inside.
This is definitely an actors’ showcase, with every performer needing to be credible in order for the whole thing to work. Jake Gyllenhaal maintains the strength of the chain, realistically depicting Tommy’s change from perpetual screw-up to family anchor. Then there’s young Bailee Madison, who plays one of the girls. Based on her preternaturally emotional performance, she could be the next Dakota Fanning.
Director Jim Sheridan also made My Left Foot and In America. He knows how to touch you without veering into mawkishness. That said, if you aren’t in tune with this particular story’s underpinnings, you might accidentally mistake what happens for bring mawkish. It’s about much more than just whether Tommy and Grace slept together, or whether Sam goes crazy. Like I said, you have to read between the lines and consider the big picture Sheridan wants to present. We all know war is hell. We all know it changes the participants. Brothers goes a step further, showing how it affects entire families – not just soldiers – and asking whether it’s possible to ever get back to normal once you’ve been through a sufficiently terrible ordeal. This is a sad story, no doubt, yet also one that leaves us with a bit of hope. All in all, a profoundly affecting and meaningful movie.
( out of four)
Brothers is rated R for language and some disturbing violent content. The running time is 1 hour and 50 minutes.
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