Mark Reviews Movies


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Jim Sheridan

Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Natalie Portman, Tobey Maguire, Sam Shepard, Mare Winningham, Bailee Madison, Taylor Geare, Clifton Collins Jr., Patrick Flueger, Carey Mulligan

MPAA Rating: R (for language and some disturbing violent content)

Running Time: 1:50

Release Date: 12/4/09

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Review by Mark Dujsik | December 3, 2009

If you can, avoid the ads for Brothers. It's not just that the TV spots and trailer give away pretty much everything that happens in the film but also that they impart it with a tone separate from what Brothers actually says within the context of its story.

I'm as annoyed about feeling obliged to dispel the mythology of marketing as I dislike partaking in it, but this is one of those cases where I do feel obligated to say that Brothers has been marketed wrongly. It shouldn't be a critic's job to consider marketing, but unfortunately, it comes with the territory. Movies exist in a financial world as much as (and sometimes it seems more than) a form of art, and while it'd be ideal to ignore one end, we're sometimes forced into a tricky situation. Yes, the movie should stand on its own, but when an interest has a bottom line to fill too, it's impractical for cinema to exist in a vacuum.

The ads would have one expect that Brothers is a melodrama about an extramarital affair and how one of the participants goes crazy over it. There is no affair, and the reason for the explosion of emotion on which the ads focus so heavily has less to do with the belief that it occurred than with the subconscious understanding that an affair would be much easier to deal with than another horrific act that the character cannot even voice to anyone else.

This is an effective character drama about the pressures of living up to one's own expectations and the ones others have established. It's a nearly unbearable burden for these people, who think they're supposed to be a certain type of person but know they cannot possibly exist in such a way.

How can one son live up to his father's high expectations after the man whose recognition he's struggling for constantly tells him he's worthless? How can a wife and mother of two stay a patriotic example of strength in the face of the loss of her husband in war? How can the other son, a solider, deal with killing an innocent man when he is too appalled by his own actions to even say that it happened?

These are questions that Jim Sheridan's film raises, and screenwriter David Benioff (working from Susanne Bier's Danish film of the same name) lets these characters live out their uncertain circumstances and rising tensions. It is not, as melodrama tends to be, about moving characters around to create an effect but trying to reveal causes.

The solider is Sam Cahill (Tobey Maguire), a Marine heading back to Afghanistan for another tour of duty. His wife is Grace (Natalie Portman), who doesn't want him to leave again but understands his sense of duty. His brother is Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal), who has just gotten out of prison for robbing a bank.

Sam Shepard plays the brothers' father, so he's an authoritative figure, full of endless praise for Sam that quickly turns into or immediately stems from criticism of Tommy.

Grace receives that devastating knock at the door from two, fully uniformed Marines, who tell her that Sam's helicopter was shot down. To the rest of the world, Sam is dead, and Tommy, who finds out after returning Sam's car after a night of drinking, turns an about-face to support his sister-in-law and two nieces (Bailee Madison and Taylor Geare). In taking them out to have fun and helping to renovate her rundown kitchen, he finds a backbone of responsibility no one, including himself, thought he had in him. She finds a way to get out of bed in the morning. The girls start smiling again.

Sam, meanwhile, is alive in Afghanistan, a captive, and fighting to remain loyal to his country while still yearning to survive and return to his family.

It's sort of pointless to hint around the fact that Sam does return home a broken shell of the man he once was, as every bit of time spent advertising the film tells us so, but the film's strength is in the buildup to that reunion. The girls grow to accept Tommy as a father figure. He passes on his own experience of trying to meet the high expectations Sam always set to the younger of the two. He takes them ice-skating and tells them stories about their dad. They never really knew Tommy before, but they love him now.

Tommy and Grace do kiss one night, and while she tells Sam this after his endless questions about what happened between the two of them while he was gone, Sam cannot leave it alone. He wants to go back to Afghanistan to his men, because only they can understand what life is like during and after war. His father, also a veteran, offers an ear to his son's troubles, but the father also believes therapy is tossed around as a solution too easily for a lot of nothing. It's clearly a weakness in his mind, and there's no way Sam can tell his father what happened over there.

That time in captivity builds and builds in his mind, and he is constantly reminded of it. A breaking point will happen, and it's only a question of when and over what.

Brothers is well-performed all around in displaying this weight of external and internal pressure. Perhaps the ads are meant to make the film seem easier to comprehend, but whatever the case, this is a solidly developed look at the toll of war on individuals and the bonds they have.

Copyright 2009 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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