Families. Some families are cursed to grapple with a lot of turmoil. The troubles can be varied due to bad choices with long-term ramifications or thrust upon you as a child and held into adulthood. And what if the after effects of war are involved to really cause some dysfunction?
Brothers is a family melodrama masquerading as a war film with characters unearthing all the usual sort of familial baggage (plus some war stuff) that fails to hit its emotional targets. For such a prestige release with marquee actors and a prominent director, the most surprising thing about Brothers is just how mediocre, confused and forgettable it is.
The two brothers of the title are Sam (Tobey Maguire) and Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal). The brothers, like many brothers or family members, are vastly different. Sam is a Marine Captain about to be shipped off to Afghanistan. He is responsible, disciplined and a loving mate to a wife (Natalie Portman) and father of two young daughters.
We meet Tommy for the first time as he's being let out of prison, so it's safe to say that he's all the things Sam isn't. Tommy's an irresponsible screw-up who likes to spend time drinking in bars, getting into mischief and then showing up with repentant, hang-dog apologies. It's been this way their whole lives.
Sam goes to Afghanistan, and the family is left behind. When Sam's helicopter is shot down and he's presumed dead, it sends the already fractured family into a tailspin of jumbled emotions. The brothers' distant, judgmental father (Sam Shepard) isn't worth much in support for the new widow, so Tommy begins to spend more time at the house, fixing up the kitchen, bonding with his nieces, beginning to look at his big brother's fetching wife with new eyes. More trouble.
Here is the moment the film goes off its rails: Sam's not really dead! He's been taken prisoner in the Afghan mountains and is being kept in a hole in the ground and forced to do things that will haunt him long after he makes it back home. This shouldn't come as much of a surprise if you've seen 10 seconds of the trailer or even looked at the poster, you know he makes it back home, this wouldn't be much of a family melodrama if he didn't.
While Sam's trying to make it to the next day, back at home people are moving forward without him, and Brothers begins to cut back and forth between home and Afghanistan. For a few minutes the story will be scenes of the family trying to pick up the pieces while dealing with Sam's death, and then we will be transported to harrowing scenes of torture. This does not work.
For this to be effective, Brothers would have to maintain a precarious balance between home/war to make the story feel natural. It doesn't. The switching back and forth makes the film feel disjointed and clunky. By bouncing the story back and forth, there is the risk of having one part of the story damage the other if the two arcs don't go hand in hand, and that is exactly what happens in Brothers.
There's nothing substantial to the characters at home that draw us into their world to feel sympathetic to them because we know that Sam is still alive. The scenes of damaged home life with a departed brother, husband, son and father feel empty and emotionless because the audience knows things the characters don't. Sam is still alive and he's in a miserable, hellish place that overpowers the scenes of "home" when juxtaposed against one another.
Based on a Danish film from 2004, adapted by David Benioff and helmed by the much respected director Jim Sheridan (In the Name of the Father, The Boxer, In America), Brothers could have chosen to go in various ways and been a better film. Known for getting great performances from his actors, Sheridan could have made a superior film had he concentrated on his cast and pulled back with certain elements of the story.
First off, huge chunks of the scenes in Afghanistan would have to be sliced out. Sheridan should have mined the possibilities of the home setting. There are solid moments in Brothers where the quiet, contemplative grief of mourning someone lost feels bone-jarringly authentic, raw and interesting, but before anything tangible can come from that, we are pulled back to Afghanistan, destroying any sort of link we may have been forming before the jump. Momentum is ruined time and time again.
By spending so much of the story with Sam in Afghanistan, less time is spent with the lead characters back at home. These people should be the backbone of the film, but they aren't. Instead Sheridan concentrates on topics such as the destructive, psychological horrors soldiers must endure when they rotate back to the real world. The tightly coiled, paranoid and angry Sam that returns to the family would have been more compelling had we not seen what he endured in Afghanistan--that way we'd be just as mystified as the family around him are by his behavior. By showing the audience everything Sam endured, Sheridan/Benioff are taking away the most valuable asset a film such as Brothers would have working in its favor: the yearning of the audience to understand the actions of a character.
Brothers is just disappointing. It's a film about a family about to break apart. It's a war film about a soldier in Afghanistan. It's a drama about the psychological damages of war. It's about the delicate bonds of family. It's about loyalty, betrayal and their various perceptions. It's too many things. In the end it's just a mediocre film about a family and fails to do the one thing a melodrama wants to do with the audience: make an emotional connection.
Share this article: