Directed by Jim Sheridan. Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Natalie Portman, Tobey Maguire, Sam Shepard, Mare Winningham, Bailee Madison, Taylor Geare, Clifton Collins Jr.. (2009, R, 110 min.)
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., Dec. 11, 2009
Inferior in practically every way to Danish director Susanne Bier’s original Brødre – but now with more U2! – Brothers draws from two rampaging traditions, Greek tragedy and romantic melodrama, and renders both weirdly inert. Maguire plays the elder Cahill brother, Sam, a captain in the Marines; an attentive husband to his high school sweetheart, Grace (Portman); and a devoted father to two little girls (played by Madison and Geare; as in his sentimental but deeply moving In America, Sheridan pulls terrific performances from his young actors). Gyllenhaal is the younger brother, Tommy, the black sheep newly released from jail with the tough-man neck tat to prove it. Their father, Hank Cahill (Shepard), can barely tolerate Tommy, despite their mutual appreciation for booze, and when Sam ships out for another tour in Afghanistan, Tommy’s ties to the family fray to near-nonexistence. Then Sam’s helicopter is shot down in enemy territory, the favorite son is presumed dead, and the family must rethink its relationships. Brothers, in its most effective and engrossing stretches, examines the malleability of the roles the various Cahills are assigned, either by themselves or by others. Here, as in Bier’s original, the most interesting transformation is also the least sensational: Tommy’s quiet arc from fuck-up to family man. He steps into Sam’s shoes – with a few notable stumbles, as well as a deepening romantic interest in Grace – and experiences maybe for the first time the feeling of what it means to be responsible, to be relevant. It’s a rebirth of sorts, one made possible expressly by his brother’s death and compromised by the fact that Sam, it turns out, is still alive. Captured by the Taliban, he’s made to do awful things, and when he comes home, he’s not the same Sam, the one who was so easy to love. Maguire, in this second part of the film, gets to do some acting pyrotechnics – dishes shattered, a gun waving wildly – but he’s more compelling in his silent, dead-eye moments. All the actors do well enough, but they don’t mesh at all – it’s as if everyone’s acting in his or her own movie – and there’s simply no lived-in quality to the film. Sheridan and scripter David Benioff stick closely to the bullet points of the original but can’t seem to translate the rich complexity of the characters and the choices they make. Frankly, it’s a little bewildering how utterly off Sheridan’s instincts seem, evidenced in the tonally jarring Thomas Newman score; the utter abandonment of Tommy’s storyline; an end-of-film U2 song that practically cuts off the characters’ exit lines; and an irritating inability to allow the audience to put two and two together (for the record, we don’t require a prolonged close-up of a poker iron to understand the threat of a situation). If you had to lob a complaint at Sheridan based solely on his previous, quite impressive body of work, from My Left Foot to In the Name of the Father to In America, I suppose you could accuse him of being a man who makes weepies. No danger of that here: Brothers is too depthless to dredge up any tears.