Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Released yesterday on DVD: "Brothers"

Grade: B

There is a grim timeliness to the release of Brothers, Jim Sheridan's movie about the effects of war on the family of a Marine serving in Afghanistan. Whatever the other consequences of President Obama's revised strategy in that country, we can be sure that it will yield more stories like the one told in this film. And it is sobering, eight years into the war, to reflect that in 2004, the first time this movie was made - by the Danish director Susanne Bier - it was just as topical and urgent.

But this Brothers, like its predecessor, is in some ways less a movie about war than a movie that uses war as a scaffolding for domestic melodrama. It also follows the template of American movies about Iraq and Afghanistan in being resolutely somber and systematically apolitical: you can witness any kind of combat heroism or atrocity, and see unflinching portrayals of grief, trauma and healing. But you almost never hear an argument about the war itself, or glimpse the larger global and national context in which these intimate dramas take shape.

The brothers in Brothers are Tommy and Sam Cahill, a reckless ne'er-do-well and a solid citizen who swap temperaments in the middle of the film. At the beginning, a twitchy, sullen Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal) has just been released from prison. The crime that put him there is alluded to but never specified, and his return is overshadowed by the impending departure of Sam (Tobey Maguire) for another tour of duty. Sam is a stoic, patient man, devoted to the men he commands and also to his wife, Grace (Natalie Portman), and their two young daughters (Taylor Geare and Bailee Madison).

Tommy and Sam are like Goofus and Gallant in those didactic old Highlights cartoons - at least in the eyes of their dad, Hank (Sam Shepard). A gravel-voiced former Marine with a grouchy demeanor and an unacknowledged drinking problem, Hank makes it no secret that he favors Sam and can barely stand the sight of Tommy. And when news reaches home of Sam's death in combat, he all but wishes aloud that his other son had died.

The scenes with Shepard are heavy-handed, and the film lurches between moments of fine, subtle realism and more frequent instances of blunt, blocky overstatement. The change that Tommy undergoes in Sam's absence - he straightens up, renovates Grace's kitchen and dotes on her kids - seems to arise less from the character's psychology than from the imperatives of David Benioff's script. And the story as a whole, especially after Sam returns, has a schematic quality about it.

Reviewing Bier's Brothers, Stephen Holden of The New York Times referred to the ideas of the psychoanalyst R.D. Laing, who studied shifting roles and identities within family systems. The difference between that film and the remake may be that while Bier's movie evokes psychological theories, Sheridan's seems to be applying them.

This is not always true. As he showed with In America, Sheridan has an especially good touch with children, and the scenes with Geare and Madison - grieving, playing, fussing with each other - are the finest and truest in the movie. Gyllenhaal and Portman, whose role is frustratingly if unsurprisingly underwritten, draw nuances out of the charged air between them. But the characters in Brothers are more shadows and ideas than flesh and blood. They lack specific gravity, a sense of rootedness in family and social reality that would give ballast to the film's intense emotions.

These explode into view once Sam comes home. It turns out that he was not killed at all - a somewhat improbable plot development - but rather held hostage and treated with unspeakable cruelty by his captors. Haunted by what he has seen and done, he walks through his house like a ghost and convinces himself that Tommy and Grace were sleeping together during his absence. Maguire's performance is disciplined but also strained, as he tries to convey the anguish of a man whose personality has been thrown off balance by circumstances.

And Brothers itself - a smart, well-meaning project - never quite pulls itself together. It has a vague, half-finished feeling, as if it had not figured out what it was trying to do. Which may amount to a kind of realism - an accurate reflection of where we are in Afghanistan.

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