Movie Review: Brothers (2009)

Tobey Maguire and Jake Gyllenhaal in Brothers

Photo: Lionsgate

Sam (Tobey Maguire) is the good brother. He followed in his father’s footsteps and joined the Marines. He married Grace (Natalie Portman) and has two young daughters. Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal) is the bad brother. He just got out of jail and enjoys a good drink (or six) at the local bar. Jim Sheridan’s Brothers, a remake of Susanne Bier’s 2004 film, uses the differences between the two siblings to establish a setting for a devastating domestic melodrama highly proficient in telling its story, but it will send you home in a heap.

Using the war in Afghanistan as the catalyst to tell this bleak and depressing story we are entrenched as Sam is presumably killed and lay witness to the resulting depression his death causes at home. Predictably, Tommy helps Grace around the home and the two form something of an ambiguous relationship. It’s at this opportune time when news comes telling us Sam didn’t die after all and he is heading home.

Now don’t worry, I’m not telling you anything the trailers don’t already tell you. However, Lionsgate is doing its best to hide the fact this film has anything to do with war. Fortunately, while war is the stimulus for the story, it isn’t the end-all focal point. Then again, it’s not the horror film the trailer makes it out to be either. Confused?

What Brothers is, is a conundrum. How important is it for you to see actors performing at their best in a film that will emotionally wreck you with no exceptions? And I don’t mean this lightly. Portman, Maguire and Gyllenhaal are all at the top of their games, but at what cost? What is the reason to see this movie? There are plenty of downer films that are worth watching, but many are entertaining over the course of their duration, or at least thought provoking. Brothers brings nothing new to the table and isn’t entertaining in the general sense of the word.

The film runs into trouble in its efforts to build up dramatic tension during Sam’s Afghan imprisonment and torture sessions as well as at home when we meet the brothers’ father played by Sam Shepard.

While captured by Taliban, Sam undergoes a series of horrors culminating in a horrific moment that stays with him throughout the rest of the film, but the fact it’s gimmicky and unnecessary destroys it’s overall impact. It was at this moment I checked out of this film emotionally and was merely sitting back and watching the performances.

As for Sam Shepard, his performance as the boys’ father isn’t the problem as much as the hackneyed dialogue he’s given makes every time he opens his mouth increasingly silly. Much of this can be laid at the feet of his drinking problem, but to that extent what kind of story is Sheridan trying to tell? Brothers gets lost in all of its tangents and none of them ever seem to come together to tell a 100-percent cohesive story.

All while watching I kept reminding myself the title of the film was Brothers and trying to put together a consistent thru-line that would justify the title, but I couldn’t. While not a war film per se, there is certainly an emphasis on the effects of war on both the soldier and his/her family. This film is also about forgiveness, which could extend to the father’s drinking problem among several other transgressions on display here, but at some point you have to stop forgiving and begin taking responsibility, something only one character in this film ever truly does.

I rarely like giving film’s positive reviews simply for having excellent performances while the film itself didn’t necessarily work for me, but I find myself straddling that line with this one. Like I said the three leads are spectacular. Tobey Maguire is a hard person for me to take seriously when his characters go to dark places, but with this one he really nails it, particularly in the film’s final moments. Portman too, hits all the right notes and Gyllenhaal’s performance and character are the most fleshed out and perfect parts of the film. A final exchange between Maguire and Gyllenhaal is certain to hit many moviegoers quite hard. It was the stand out moment for me.

While I have my doubts about the film itself I applaud the efforts of those involved. That’s the best I can do.



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