So far, most films about the current war in the Middle East have not fared well at the box office with efforts like Home of the Brave (2006), In the Valley of Elah (2007) and Stop-Loss (2008) getting limited distribution or underperforming at the box office (or both), often garnering little interest with mainstream audiences. People don't want to be reminded of the problems we face over there or the effects of it here at home when our soldiers return. To counter this attitude with his film Brothers (2009), director Jim Sheridan cannily cast marquee names like Natalie Portman, Tobey Maguire and Jake Gyllenhaal in an attempt to appeal to a mainstream audience. A remake of Susanna Bier's 2004 Danish film Brodre, Brothers performed modestly well at the box office, but was largely unseen and remains an absorbing look at just not what soldiers go through, but how their loved ones deal with them once they get home. It also features powerful performances from the three aforementioned lead actors.
Captain Sam Cahill (Tobey Maguire) is a United States Marine heading back to Afghanistan for another tour of duty. He’s a loving family man with a beautiful wife named Grace (Natalie Portman) and two adorable daughters, Isabelle (Bailee Madison) and Maggie (Taylor Geare). Tobey Maguire and Natalie Portman are instantly believable as a married couple that clearly loves each other. There is a familiarity that couples have and even though they don’t have much screen-time to convey it before Sam ships off, they pull it off in the way their characters look and interact with each other. In contrast, his brother Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal) has just been released from prison after serving time for armed robbery. He’s the black sheep of the family and Grace doesn’t think too highly of her husband’s brother, but is nice to him in person. While Sam and Tommy get along fine there is tangible tension between their father (Sam Shepard) and latter. This is evident in an uncomfortable family dinner where their father makes it known that he sees Sam as a hero for serving his country and Tommy as a disappointment, causing the latter to make a scene. You can cut the tension with a knife during this scene until Tommy’s controlled outburst brings long simmering resentments to the surface.
While on a mission over hostile territory, Sam’s helicopter is shot down and he’s presumed dead. Sheridan makes the right choice when depicting the standard scene of the wife being told that her husband has been killed by showing Grace coming to the door and breaking down once she sees the military officers. No words need to be said and the scene ends there because Portman’s reaction says enough. Instead, Sheridan shows Grace’s full-blown emotional breakdown when Tommy stops by later that night to return Sam’s truck. Rather than console her, he erupts in anger and storms off. It’s an odd reaction, but in character as Tommy is clearly someone with a lot rage inside of him.
Tommy starts spending more time with his brother’s family, helping around the house and the rest of the film plays out the growing attraction between him and Grace. Meanwhile, Sam survives the attack on his helicopter and is being held prisoner and tortured.
Natalie Portman turns in a wonderfully nuanced performance as a woman trying to process the unbelievable grief she is experiencing. There are scenes where you can see Grace putting on a brave face for those around her, especially her children, but every so often she lets it slip and reveals the hurt that exists under the surface. For example, there is a scene where everyone throws a surprise birthday party for Grace and as she’s about to blow out the candles on her cake. There is a moment where she has a distant, haunted look before catching herself and regaining her pleasant façade. It’s a nice bit of acting from Portman and throughout the film she conveys a complex range of emotions as the actress shows how Grace processes the grief of her husband’s death and her emerging, conflicted feelings for Tommy.
Brothers is a slow burn, slice-of-life film as Sheridan dives deep into this family, examining the dynamic between Tommy and his father, a veteran of the Vietnam War. There are hints that his strict, perhaps even abusive style of parenting pushed Tommy to the kind of life he leads – an aimless ne’er’-do-well with a past full of regrets. The more time he spends with Grace and her daughters, the more of an influence they have on him. They provide a stabilizing effect by giving him a sense of purpose. Jake Gyllenhaal does a nice job of conveying Tommy’s inner turmoil, which he carries around with him. Initially, he gets to play the brooding, moody brother, but over the course of the film he transforms into someone who is more open and responsible. It’s a natural progression that the actor conveys expertly.
Tobey Maguire’s character also undergoes a transformation from genial family man to paranoid soldier suffering from severe post-traumatic stress disorder after spending several months as a prisoner of war. The actor goes through an impressive physical transformation as Sam is beaten and deprived of sleep so that he becomes a shadow of his former self. He does what he has to do in order to survive. If Brothers has a flaw it is that too much time is spent in Afghanistan showing how Sam’s humanity is stripped away by his captors. I understand the purpose of these scenes – they explain his behavior later on when he finally returns home, but as they continue and Sam’s situation gets bleaker, the balance that Sheridan has maintained up to this point is threatened. The Afghanistan scenes could have been left up to our imagination and conveyed through well-written expositional dialogue delivered by the talented Maguire.
As he demonstrated with In America (2002), Sheridan has a real affinity for getting naturalistic performances out of child actors and Brothers is no different, especially from Bailee Madison who plays the slightly older of the two daughters. Isabelle is more aware of what is going on and that something isn’t right with her father. This realization, as it plays briefly over her face in one scene, is absolutely heartbreaking. As a result, she is more emotional than her happy-go-lucky sibling. Madison really stands out during a tense dinner scene towards the end of the film when Isabelle intentionally baits her father. She is acting out, like a petulant child, but is also the only one in the family who has the courage to address the big elephant in the room – Sam’s increasingly erratic behavior.
Originally, Jim Sheridan was writing a story about two brothers growing up in Ireland but couldn’t get the financing for it. He ended up watching Susanna Bier's 2004 Danish film Brodre and liked it so much he thought it could be remade for North American audiences, changing the emphasis from an illicit love triangle to that of the family. Jake Gyllenhaal was the first actor to sign on, followed by Tobey Maguire and Natalie Portman.
At the time she signed on to do Brothers, Portman made a conscious decision to pick more mature roles: “I’m trying to find roles that demand more adulthood from me because you can get stuck in a very awful cute cycle as a woman in film – especially being such a small person.” To prepare for the part, the actress met with Army wives in order to understand how they managed their lives. She also bonded with the young actresses playing her daughters by having them over for baking parties and hanging out with them between takes. She and Maguire were able to play husband and wife so well because they had known each other for 14 years prior. She said, “Just knowing someone for that long is great history to have when you’re walking on set and playing husband and wife.” In addition, she had also known co-star Gyllenhaal for ten years.
During rehearsals and on set, Sheridan played a live version of Bruce Springsteen’s “The River” to get Gyllenhaal in the mood of a scene where Tommy and Grace share a quiet moment together. For Gyllenhaal, the song reminded him of the connection to his family, in particular his father. In working with the child actors, Sheridan had his own specific method: “what I do is present a scene to them as a problem, a kind of puzzle, and then ask them questions, what they think the character is thinking, or wants to do.”
Brothers received mixed reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave it three-and-a-half out of four stars and praised Maguire’s performance: “This becomes Tobey Maguire’s film to dominate, and I’ve never seen these dark depths in him before. Actors possess a great gift to surprise us, if they find the right material in their hands.” In his review for The New York Times, A.O. Scott wrote, “And Brothers itself – a smart, well-meaning project – never quite pulls itself together. It has a vague, half-finished feeling, as if it had not figured out what it was trying to do. Which may amount to a kind of realism – an accurate reflection of where we are in Afghanistan.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “C+” rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “Brothers isn’t badly acted, but as directed by the increasingly impersonal Jim Sheridan, it’s lumbering and heavy-handed, a film that piles on overwrought dramatic twists until it begins to creak under the weight of its presumed significance.”
USA Today gave the film three out of four stars and Claudia Puig wrote, “Bailee Madison and Taylor Geare are excellent as Sam and Grace’s young daughters, derailed by their dad’s scary bouts of anger and his newfound coldness. The youthful portrayals recall the indelible roles of the young daughters in Sheridan’s wonderful 2003 film, In America.” The Los Angeles Times’ Betsey Sharkey wrote, “There will be echoes of that passion and poignancy in Brothers. But unlike the clear voice of those earlier films, Sheridan seems as conflicted as the Cahills about their virtues and failings.” Finally, in his review for the Washington Post, Michael O’Sullivan wrote, “Brothers is depressing as hell. And, like most war movies these days, it ends on a note that’s far from hopeful. But it’s good, and wise, and it feels true. Meaning, it hurts.”
Brothers is a fusion of Sheridan’s fascination with people put under extraordinary duress, like In the Name of the Father (1993), and families dealing with hardships, like In America. At times, Brothers feels like one of the films from the 1980s that dealt with families struggling to understand loved ones that had served time in the Vietnam War – In Country (1989) and Jacknife (1989) are two that come immediately to mind as spiritual antecedents to Brothers. In Sheridan’s capable hands, this film is a nicely observed character study that tries to show the trauma a soldier experience during war and what their family goes through at home, perhaps lingering a little too long on the hardships Sam endures in Afghanistan.
Brothers is a good film about an uncomfortable topic. It doesn’t offer any easy answers – how can it while we are still mired in this war? This will only come with time, but it exists as a document of where we are now. The war in the Middle East may be an unpopular one, but it is important that the stories of the people that fought it over there and continue to do so back home are told. By telling their stories maybe we can process how the war has affected us as a country.
Ditzian, Eric. “Brothers’ Star Tobey Maguire, Natalie Portman Talk ‘Growing Up Together.’” MTV.com. December 2, 2009.
Farquharson, Vanessa. “Jim Sheridan Reflects on the Betrayals at Brothers’ Core.” The Financial Post. December 4, 2009.
Freydkin, Donna. “Natalie Portman Transitions into Adult Role in Brothers.” USA Today. December 4, 2009.
“Springsteen’s The River Brings Gyllenhaal to Tears on Set.” WENN Entertainment News Wire Service. December 3, 2009.
Thompson, Bob. “When Irish Eyes are Filming.” Vancouver Sun. December 4, 2009.
Vaughan, R.M. “You leave it to the actors, really, to the acting.” Globe & Mail. December 4, 2009.