Sibling Rivalries: Jim Sheridan’s “Brothers”

Jim Sheridan has a knack for churning out flashpan dramatic cinema despite its roster of high-profile talent; 1997’s The Boxer featured Daniel Day-Lewis as recently released IRA-operative-come-boxer Danny Flynn, a role reminiscent of the couple’s earlier pairing, In the Name of the Father, which also featured Emma Thompson. Since then he’s directed a few urban dramas, including the miserable Get Rich or Die Tryin’ with 50 Cent, and now brings us Brothers, the tale of a family torn asunder by the presumed loss of Sam Cahill (Tobey McGuire), Marine captain and father of two.

The trailer for Brothers misrepresents the film as a tale of scandalous love between Grace, Sam’s wife, and Tommy, his brother, following his rumored demise—and the violent drama that erupts when he re-emerges from his tour of duty. And while this is definitely a part of the movie, the trailer fails in capturing the mood, theme, character, or even basic plot structure that makes this story of domestic woe so powerful. The narrative opens with Tommy’s release from jail on the eve of his brother’s departure for Afghanistan; familial tension is immediately established between Tommy and the rest of his family at their first meal together, where the brothers’ father constantly throws Sam’s success in Tommy’s face as a reminder of his shame and disappointment. After Sam reaches Afghanistan, his helicopter is shot down and he’s taken captive by militant insurgents. Meanwhile, Sam’s wife is informed of his presumed death and soon establishes a bond with Tommy, setting in motion a storyline weaving together Tommy’s redemption and Sam’s self-damnation. Needless to say, Brothers is much more than the trailer leads one to believe.

Jake Gyllenhaal proves yet again his prowess in portraying confused, emotionally distraught men with his portrayal of Tommy. The fury he flies into following Grace’s revelation of Sam’s death is palpable—you can see true rage boiling in those big caterpillar eyebrows—much unlike Tobey McGuire’s anger, witnessed later, which is unquestionably the film’s greatest weakness. McGuire looks as comical as he does enraged, banging his crowbar around the kitchen all willy nilly, and his facial expressions left me wondering if his skull was going to just pop out of his head at some point. Natalie Portman’s casting felt confusing; she does a great job with Grace, but I simply can’t imagine Portman as a mom yet. She’s too beautiful. She’s too young. She’s too—familiar. Maybe I’m just getting old and refusing to admit it, but actresses who I could’ve gone to school with can’t play a mother of two yet; some aging would’ve certainly helped with believability. Whenever she was on-screen I couldn’t stop asking myself if Natalie Portman could justifiably play a mother. Finally, the children steal the show with comic relief; whoever wrote their lines has an impeccable sense of timing.

Look at that big goofy grin. I'm glad we hate each other.

Though appropriate, the score felt unnecessary and clumsily implemented. When Sam’s helicopter is shot down, thumping bass beats are piped in; when dragged through the desert, ominous string music is played. It’s predictable and generic, as if thrown together at the last minute on someone’s home version of Garage Band. Cinematically, Brothers brings nothing especially new to the table—it’s a film about overcoming wartime and personal trauma. But story-wise, the film bursts with passion and entertainment—is crafted with a dedication to its characters rarely seen in wartime cinema. The only loose thread begging development is that of the brothers’ father, who stumbles in and out of scenes to provide surrogate contention where none is really necessary. The main narrative carries itself with character flaws and tensions great enough that the father feels superfluous and unresolved, though this doesn’t harm it on any grand level.  Brothers is a film for anyone who’s ever lost the ability to care, or given up on life, then discovered the need to feel again. It’s as much about personal wars as it is domestic and foreign ones, and can be appreciated by anyone.

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