Jim Sheridan’s latest film Brothers is neither a failure, nor a triumph. In fact, it’s difficult to define what, exactly, it is. At times it’s an interesting examination of the way war affects everyone both directly and peripherally. At other times, Brothers seem to think it’s supposed to be a frightening psychological thriller. I suppose it really it is both, but is uneven on both counts.
Captain Sam Cahill (Tobey Maguire) and his wife Grace (Natalie Portman) have a modest, but idyllic life with their two daughters. He was the high school football player, she the cheerleader, they were high school sweethearts. Sam’s brother Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal) is the bright, but unmotivated fuck up who, at the beginning of the film, is just being released from prison (his stay merited by a botched bank robbery).
Sam is serving in the military and is called to serve another tour of duty in Afghanistan. While there, his helicopter is shot down and he is presumed dead. Actually, he is taken prisoner for several months. At home, Tommy steps up to care for Sam’s little family, walking a thin, and undefined line between supportive brother-in-law and possible love interest. The unknown nature of their relationship will eventually torture Sam.
Sam eventually escapes his captors and returns home. This is where the film finally starts to gain it’s bearings.
The characters in this melodramatic plot are surprisingly multifaceted, in no small part due to three oustanding performances by the leads. Yes, their cliched to the hilt (and even Grace calling herself and her husband one can’t change that fact). Tommy’s character continually feuds with his father (Sam Shephard). In fact, all of his decisions seem to be attempts to win a little patriarchal affection. At one point Tommy tells his father that he’d slit his own throat to bring Sam back. While Sam and Tommy were friendly, this statement seems disingenuous, and more pleading for acceptance. He even starts to remodel Grace’s kitchen because his father mentioned that it needed to be done in passing.
Due to months of torture and incarceration, Sam comes home quite unstable, and is disturbed at how close his family has grown to Tommy. The distance is only reinforced by his inability to connect with those that, as he puts it, ‘don’t understand.’ He has it in his head that Tommy and Grace were physically intimate together. While all of his fears, real, or imagined, seem justified, the tension it causes isn’t the point. Nor is it, as it easily could have been, some redundant political commentary (at one point, the ‘bad guys’ are referred to as “the ones with beards”), as it seems Sheridan isn’t offering answers, but merely asking questions (an assumption very much supported by the film’s rather abrupt ending).
Some of Sheridan’s antics come across as false, and empty. His attempts at portraying a perfect life for Sam and Grace, before his tour, fall short of the mark, effectually ruining the contrast. But his skill becomes apparent during one particular scene, a birthday party for Tommy’s daughter after he’s returned home. While nothing seriously significant happens, it’s a wonderful example of how to create tension and sustain it.
In an Oscar season with few outstanding performances, Gyllenhaal, Maguire and Portman could all deservingly receive nominations. Its cliches and melodramatic antics won’t let Brothers become a great film, but thanks to its leads, it will stick out as one of the more memorable of the season.