In a recent segment of the “The Late Show” featuring actress Natalie Portman (“V for Vendetta”), David Letterman lauded “Brothers” as “the finest movie ever made in the past 12, 20 years.” That night, he scarcely allowed the increasingly uncomfortable Portman to get a word in edgewise; Letterman was so fanatically thrilled with his moviegoing experience. For a man who usually conducts interviews with stars in a half-mocking, half-distracted fashion, Letterman’s genuine interest is kind of a big deal.
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Based on a 2004 Danish film of the same name, “Brothers” is about brothers Sam (Tobey Maguire, “Spider-Man”) and Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal, “Brokeback Mountain”), the former a U.S. Marine who gets deployed to Afghanistan, the latter a formerly incarcerated n’er-do-well who couldn’t care less about serving his country. Shortly after leaving, Sam is proclaimed dead, leaving his wife Grace (Portman), their two daughters and Tommy to cope with the disastrous repercussions.
One of the film’s greatest decisions was casting Gyllenhaal and Maguire as brothers, as the two resemble each other so much that people found it physically difficult to tell them apart prior to “Brokeback.” This similarity helps contribute to the film’s role reversal, as bad-boy Tommy gradually gets in touch with his father-figure side, building Grace a new kitchen and playing games with her daughters. Eventually, loneliness and attraction draw the grieving wife and younger brother into a marijuana-fueled kiss, bringing newfound hope to a family ravaged by tragedy. Now, Tommy has superseded his brother’s position as the patriarch.
In a bit of a “Pearl Harbor”/“Apocalypse Now” spin, Sam comes back just as the family is on the verge of patching itself together. It turns out he had been held hostage by the Taliban, and is now a deranged shell of his former self, irrevocably changed by the incalculable horrors of war. Here, the reversal has occurred both ways, as the formerly stoic Sam staggers around the house screaming of adultery and treachery.
It has become somewhat of a trend in cinema to bemoan the devastation of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the post-Bush era. Like the simultaneously released film “The Messenger,” “Brothers” is not strictly a “war movie.” Although the movie features gruesome scenes of the Taliban branding prisoners with hot irons, the meat of the story lies in the home. In this way, “Brothers” is more interested in exploring the domestic discord resulting from a soldier’s absence and eventual return to humanity than what happens in the war itself.
First and foremost, “Brothers” is a narrative. Aristotle said that the greatest aspect of tragedy lies in neither character nor quality of writing, but in plot. In this facet, writer David Benioff (“25th Hour”) and director Jim Sheridan (“My Left Foot”) indisputably excel. The film is not a mechanism for overacting thespians to strut around and chew scenery. Instead, the cast members to synergistically feed off of each other, working together for a common cause, wholly and completely dedicated to the story. When necessary, the performances can be wonderful, thrilling and frightening, but also subtle and low-key. Portman, for her part, seems content to bow out of the spotlight to the more important characters when that’s what her character dictates.
But where Sheridan particularly shines is in directing children. In cinema, a child is rarely allowed to possess a personality. Sheridan manages to skirt the obligatorily cute, precocious nonsense in favor of a depiction rooted in emotion and dimensionality. The best scene of the movie is performed not by an adult, but by elder daughter Isabelle (Bailee Madison, “Bridge to Terabithia”). The scene is a harrowing outburst charged with emotional energy and bile. Even though she will probably never be recognized for it, her performance is the stuff of Oscar gold.
“Brothers” is a blisteringly real depiction of the overarching effects of a soldier coming home, as brilliantly muscular as it is intimate. But this isn’t to say that “Brothers” is pitch perfect: The message of “war is bad” runs too simplistically, and it can get a little tiresome watching Portman mourn for two hours. Despite his slightly moralizing tone, Sheridan manages to gather up the ribbons of dissent and tie them into a well-constructed film.