by Ben Travers

24 March 2010

Despite a somewhat misleading title, Brothers is a piercing, personal look at family life affected by difficult moral choices.
cover art


Director: Jim Sheridan
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Natalie Portman, Tobey Maguire, Sam Shepard, Bailee Madison, Taylor Geare, Carey Mulligan

(Michael De Luca Productions, Relativity Media)
US DVD: 23 Mar 2010

Review [4.Dec.2009]

Let me start with a warning – to those few of you interested enough to read this without yet seeing the trailer for Brothers, please do not watch it. I realize this plea will most likely land on eyes already exposed to the plot twisting, spoiler divulging two-minute tease (not least, of course, the film itself), but it had to be said. Perhaps it would be better if I asked those of you who’ve seen it to either avoid watching it again or attempt to expunge it from your memories. Treat the trailer it as it really is: a manipulated highlight reel of truths without context meant to get (at the time of the film release) people in movie theaters or now, to sell DVDs. 

Instead, let me fill you in on the bare bones of what you need to know before seeing the film. Tobey Maguire stars as…wait! Don’t click away! I realize some of you may have seen “Tobey Maguire” and in fact processed Spiderman, but fear not. He actually acts in this film (and quite well, as a matter of fact). Anyway, Maguire plays Capt. Sam Cahill, a family man about to embark on his fourth tour overseas. Before he leaves, though, he has to pick up his brother Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal) from prison. 

The pair’s connection is evident from the get go. Not only do they share meaningful glances at a family dinner and know just when to stop talking about an emotional subject, but Maguire and Gyllenhaal sell themselves as siblings through what feels like sheer will. Directed handily by Jim Sheridan, the two depict brotherhood in such nuance it’s hard to remember the specific actions. Only the emotion is left over post-viewing. 

When Sam is sent to war and Tommy becomes more involved in his family, a change is made evident in more than just their physical selves. A presence shifts. Tommy seems born to be an uncle, not a husband. His almost lackadaisical helping man demeanor avoids cliché thanks not only to Gyllenhaal’s consistency, but the reactions of his stalwart costars. Natalie Portman, as the aptly named Grace, Sam’s wife, handles the change warily. She is cautious around her ex-con brother-in-law, but never pushes him away from her family. He’s still a part of it. He’s still a connection to her husband. The trust is fragile and ever-present.

The same can be said of her two kids, Isabelle and Maggie (Bailee Madison and Taylor Geare, respectively). The left-behind trio takes time to develop a report with Uncle Tommy. Thankfully, these relationships aren’t established through forced scenes of bravery or seemingly random instances of kindness. Again, thanks to the watchful gaze of Sheridan, almost every scene rings true for all of characters. He doesn’t try to provide each actor with one or two key scenes to flex their acting muscles and create a relationship. He throws everyone together and generates real interaction, just as most families do.

The authenticity doesn’t end there, but my plot summary certainly does. Try not to make any assumptions on what’s going to happen next. There are moral choices and intense confrontations to come, but it’s better to live with the characters in the moment. The script provides enough motivation where you don’t have to pull yourself out of the film and try to figure out why he or she did this or that. It’s all right out in front of you. Sit back and enjoy the performances. 

All the performances, in fact. Though Maguire and Gyllenhaal really excel here, they don’t vastly outperform any of their costars. Portman provides her most mature work to date. I really didn’t think I could believe her to be a mother of two by age 29 when she still looks 22. I was wrong. She shows the quiet courage of a mother suffering beneath the surface throughout the film. Sam Shepard and Mare Winningham, as Grandpa and Grandma, also play their roles to perfection.

Perhaps the most pleasant surprise, though, is the emergence of two young stars in the making. Madison and Geare are absolutely astounding as Sam and Grace’s daughters. Sheridan describes working with child actors as playing with lightning in a bottle on one of the DVD’s bonus featurettes. He must have known he captured it, here. While it’s great to see the young leads shine in their adult roles, it’s even more exciting to discover new talent already in top form. These two are ones to watch out for in the future.

Sheridan, as he did in his past work with My Left Foot, In America and even Get Rich or Die Tryin’ knows how to shoot family in their element. Frankly put, he knows how to make great melodrama and that’s what works here. What doesn’t quite work is mostly created by the film’s erroneous title. This isn’t so much a film about brothers as it is about family units and their functions. There are a few scenes that try to drive the brotherhood theme home, but they end up feeling extraneous. Tommy and Sam recite to one another, “You’re my brother, Tommy/Sam.” The words are meant to carry a heavy weight only entirely identifiable to brothers. Instead, they come off as clunky replacements for words that actually bear appropriate force.

The film as whole never settles on a message, weighty or otherwise. It doesn’t carry an anti- or pro-war agenda. Instead it chooses to keep the story a personal one that may exemplify a few choice cases of returning soldiers.

The actors voice these same sentiments in the single disc’s special features content. In two featurettes, all three actors and their director appear consistently to provide their take on whatever questions are posed to them. There’s nothing spectacular to be found, though, and it would have been nice to have the three stars lend their voices to their director’s commentary track. Still, despite the marketers’ attempts to ruin the movie, Brothers is well worth seeing for its forceful performances and Sheridan’s intimate telling. If only everyone could have seen it with a clean slate.



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