Based on a 2004 Danish film about a man sent to war in Afghanistan — hundreds of our allies there are from Denmark, and dozens have lost their lives — and the burgeoning relationship between his troublesome brother and his wife, Brothers is about as simple a tale as it comes. It’s the “coming home” drama that Hollywood has covered thoroughly since post-Vietnam, mixed with the lethal sibling tension that’s been a recurring theme in literature for thousands of years.
A film with such basic elements requires an experienced handler who knows how to coax freshness out of old material, and help the story find its own legs. By that measure, Irish master Jim Sheridan is a caretaker par excellence. Brothers brushes the surface of several elements that Sheridan has dug into before: torture, injustice, and the fragility of brotherhood (In the Name of the Father); a troubled ex-con (The Boxer); and siblings under duress (In America).
Sheridan’s stellar past work informs and uplifts Brothers and brings out some of the best performances of the year. In the case of Tobey Maguire as the soldier and Natalie Portman as his wife, these are the best performances of their careers.
Just before he’s to be shipped to Afghanistan, Marine Capt. Sam Cahill (Maguire) picks up his brother, Tommy (Gyllenhaal), from prison. Tommy seems to be on a path of self-destruction it would take an earth-shattering event to right, and that event comes when Sam’s helicopter goes down and he’s presumed dead. Back home, Tommy is shaken straight and takes up handiwork around his brother’s house and, eventually, playtime with Sam’s kids.
Meanwhile, Sam and a fellow soldier are being tortured in a prison camp in the caves of Afghanistan. Sam is put to the test with months of malnutrition and mental torment, and when his rescue comes, his menacing and steely eyes tell us (and his grateful family back home) that something is amiss. Sam can’t adjust to his life and family – as the oldest daughter, 10-year-old actress Bailee Madison shows wonderfully natural emotion – and things spiral downward in raw, primal fashion.
Gyllenhaal, as the brother left to clean up the mess, again proves his merit as one of the finest young actors working today. His performance flirts with many levels of melodrama but always keeps a realistic keel. When he reminds Sam, “I’m your brother,” he delivers the message fully loaded with subtext, sometimes as comfort, other times as an accusation.
Maguire and Portman are both actors who were blessed with preternatural emotive ability at an early age but have struggled to play convincing adults. No longer. Portman has taken a step toward believability as a parental figure here, while Maguire chews up the screen as the proud offspring of a military man. Maguire’s presence, whether trance-like, hesitantly warm, or explosively dangerous, fills every room he enters. — Justin Strout