Monday, December 14, 2009


By the end of Brothers, we have been put through the ringer of human emotion, from love to fear to uncertainty to rage, and we have questioned the bonds of family and the merits of war. But that's nothing new. The most interesting segments of Jim Sheridan's new film invite fresher, more interesting questions. How does one learn to cope with committing unspeakable atrocities? Can a family that was already fractured use tragedy to piece itself back together? When faced with two equally dangerous companionship options, how should a grieving woman respond? And most interestingly of all, can an innocent person bring his/herself to continue loving a monster? Interesting questions all...and Brothers fails to answer any of them.

Not that I'm against open-ended conflicts and difficult questions; to the contrary, some of our most interesting films possess both qualities. Brothers is interesting, too, but it refuses to give us anything -- not merely because it wants to leave loose ends hanging, but because it's too bashful to dig deeper. Life is fraught with impossible hardships and situations that don't have easy answers...or complex answers, for that matter. But somehow we find a way to survive. No, there aren't any "answers," but there are many courses to navigate through the wilderness. Those courses are the stuff of great drama. Brothers stops short of choosing a ends at the beginning.

If you've seen the trailer, you know the premise. If you have not seen the trailer, skip this section and jump to the end of the spoilers. Sam Cahill (Tobey Maguire) is a responsible family man and decorated armed forces Captain who is about to head out on another deployment, leaving his loyal wife Grace (Natalie Portman) and two young daughters behind. Sam's brother, Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal), is the exact opposite, an aimless, drunken troublemaker who has just been released from jail. When Sam is said to have died on the battlefield, Tommy steps in as Grace's helpmate, warming to the kids and building a new family dynamic in the process. But then...Sam returns. Alive. And he is...different.

The formerly centered Army captain has been through hell -- we know, since we witness his tortured journey. But the battle sequences distract from the natural flow of the family scenes, which are designed to set up complicated dynamics that the film can't pay off, possibly because the war material takes up too much screen time. As a result, Brothers becomes the most unfortunate of cinematic products: the film where the trailer reveals everything. We've seen this issue arise before, but never has the film in question been so potentially strong. I'm not sure who made the final decisions on what material was included in the film's trailer, whether it was Sheridan or producer Mike DeLuca or someone else, but there needed to be some responsible dissent in the room. It would have been a problem no matter what, but it's especially glaring with the knowledge that the film fails to push past the dramatic high points of the trailer in any significant way. I'm not asking for surprises, but I am asking that filmmakers understand the path their stories should take.


The acting is universally flawless. Maguire must chart a course from straight-laced soldier to battered soul to paranoid rage-a-holic, and he never misses a beat. He gets to unleash in one of the great movie meltdowns of recent years and unburden his soul is quieter, subtler moments. Gyllenhaal is a pitch-perfect "black sheep," a lost soul who we soon discover can dig deep to become a better person. Portman is wondrous as the would-be widow, who has what is possibly the film's most complex emotional quandary, but who is most hurt by the film's lack of guts to go to even more difficult territory. The filmmakers lock her into a solely reactionary state, when in reality the story should hinge on her character's decisive actions.

The revelation of the film is young Bailee Madison, a 10-year-old who has appeared previously in kid's TV and family films like Bridge to Terabithia, and who delivers the best child performance I have ever seen. As the Cahills' eldest daughter, she is a complete revelation, hitting emotional highs and quiet subtleties most seasoned thespians can't easily reach. Her work alone is reason enough to see the film.

But for all its glowing positives, Brothers' screenplay can't quite make it to the story's natural, rough-and-tumble emotional implications, as if writer David Benioff was reticent to explore the most challenging territory. Sheridan, one of the great directors of complicated family dynamics, is the right choice for this film, but for whatever reason -- be it the stifling of the material or the steep degree of difficulty this story represents -- his work seems a little awkward, as if it was hard to avoid melodrama and each scene was staged so specifically that it ultimately feels unnatural. A great shame, because this movie features some of the most powerful acting of the year, and presents what may be the year's most interesting and painful story conflict. But with material like this, it's all about taking risks, and Brothers fails to abandon the safety net.

No comments: