In Theaters: Brothers
A frustrating cobble of war story, familial drama and domestic melodrama, Brothers has more affecting moments than it deserves, owing to a couple of exceptional performances and a weary nation's weakness when it comes to both sad soldier stories and Jake Gyllenhaal's soulful gaze. A remake of Suzanne Bier's 2004 film, Brødre, Brothers tries to work so much mitigating dramatic circumstance into its rather classical narrative -- two brothers, one good, one bad, are forced to reevaluate their roles when one is faced with an unbearable challenge; there's a girl -- that the title, central relationship is the one that never comes into focus.
Sam (Tobey Maguire) and Tommy (Gyllenhaal) certainly share pretty blue eyes, but that constitutes the sum total evidence of their genetic bond, something their drinky, cranky ex-Marine father (Sam Shepherd) reminds them of about five seconds after arriving on screen. Tommy has just returned from a stint in prison for something bad but not too bad (i.e. he's Jake Gyllenhaal) and despite the standard issue knuckle tattoos, skull cap and 11 o'clock shadow, Gyllenhaal manages to avoid cliché even in the initial, completely clichéd "tense dinner table reunion" scene, where Tommy and Sam, who is about to be re-deployed to Afghanistan, try to respectively deflect and manage their dad's demeaning verbal blows. Mare Winningham's in there somewhere, and I'm sure she vaguely chastises her undermining husband at some point, but honestly, I have no memory of it. Equally ephemeral is Natalie Portman's role as Sam's sweet, beautiful (and lest you miss that, two different strangers stop the presses to remark on her beauty over the course of the film) wife Grace, mother to his two children and not much else. She was a cheerleader, Sam was the high school quarterback, and Tommy was the professional fuck-up. Accept it and let's move on.
David Benioff's script does, anyway, sketching out broad character and plot strokes and then moving on before even beginning to fill them in: Sam, it seems, is killed in action when his Black Hawk helicopter is shot down. The family is told and a funeral is held despite, as we later learn, having a body or even a shred of evidence for his death; even if you haven't read about the film, you can smell a Pearl Harbor coming from 50 paces. The film moves rather awkwardly between scenes of rapprochement and then a reparative bond developing between Tommy and Grace and the girls (even his dad gives in a bit, after telling Tommy, in a frustratingly allusive post-funeral parking lot dust-up, that he wishes he had died instead of Sam), and scenes of Sam, who is actually being held captive by what must be the Taliban.
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