Brothers: Jim Sheridan’s Remake of Danish Film, Starring Tobey Maguire, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Natalie Portman

“Brothers,” Jim Sheridan’s new film, falls short of its ambitious goal to be an emotionally powerful family drama, perhaps because it’s trying too hard to do too much but in very conventional and familiar ways. While grounding the story in the current context of the controversial Afghanistan War, the film tries to tell a riveting story of two brothers who are polar opposites.
Inspired by Susanne Bier’s 2005 Danish film of the same title, which is far superior, as written by David Benioff, “Brothers” is ultimately a conventional and middlebrow melodrama.  Thematically similar to Bier’s film, Sheridan’s remake is decidedly different, both narratively and stylistically.
Unfortunately, it unfolds as a technically polished, star-driven, sort of an updated Hollywood feature about two siblings (one “good”, the other “bad”), a genre that goes back to Kazan’s 1955 “East of Eden” with James Dean, and perhaps even beyond that.  Like those films, “Brothers” bears the signs of a biblical allegory of Cain and Abel, with a load of symbolic meanings about sin, redemption, and forgiveness.
As a contemporary war drama, “Brothers” leaves much to be desired, even if it aspires to do for the American involvement in Afghanistan what 1970s films, such as “The Deer Hunter” and “Coming Home,” did for the Vietnam War, raising the public consciousness about the hellish impact of war, not only on those who fight but also on those left behind at home.
In essence, the saga concerns a decorated Marine who goes missing overseas. This imbalance motivating his black-sheep younger brother to take care of his wife and children at home, resulting in some unanticipated consequences that shatter the foundation of the nuclear family in both positive and negative way.
In the first scene, set through voice-over narration on October 7, 2007, two vastly different brothers are introduced. Captain Sam Cahill (Tobey Maguire), a thirtysomething decorated Marine about to embark on his fourth tour of duty, is a steadfast family man, married to his high school sweetheart, aptly named Grace (Natalie Portman), with whom he has two young daughters (Bailee Madison and Taylor Grace Geare), who are also vastly different in physical appearance and demeanor.
His younger brother Tommy Cahill (Jake Gyllenhaal) is Sam’s opposite type, single, irresponsible, and living unsteady life, defined by lack of commitment to job or relationship. A drifter just out of jail, Tommy has always gotten by on wit and easy-going charm. On parole, he slides easily into his role as family provocateur on his first night out of prison, at Sam’s farewell dinner with their parents, Elsie (Mare Winningham) and Hank Cahill (Sam Shepard), a retired Marine.
As the stern, rigid father, who favors one son over the other, Hank provides the impetus for many of the earlier dramatic conflicts, most of which are so obvious that are borderline banal; after the funeral, he won’t even let Tommy drive! Yet you know, it’s only a matter of time before Hanks melts down and begins to reevaluate his “no-good” son, who carries a chip on his shoulders.
Shipped out to Afghanistan, Sam is presumed dead when his Black Hawk helicopter is shot down in the mountains. Meanwhile, at home in suburbia, the Cahill family suddenly faces a shocking void. At first reluctantly, Tommy tries to fill in for his brother by assuming newfound responsibility for Grace and the children, not to mention himself.
The film’s second, and weakest reel, shifts back and forth between the battlefield and the home front. But Sam is not dead. He and a fellow soldier have been captured by Taliban fighters. In Afghanistan’s harsh, remote Pamir Mountains, Sam is subjected to traumas that threaten to rob him of his very humanity. Problem is, we have seen these kinds of scenes many times before and in better pictures.
In the last reel, “Brothers” gets too schematic and predictable in the kinds of conflicts it presents and too schematic in the all too explicit contrasts and parallels it draws. Thus, while Sam’s sense of self is gradually being destroyed overseas, Tommy’s self-image is gradually strengthening at home.
In the battlefield, tensions build up to a climax, when Sam is asked by his captors to commit an act of atrocity that will forever haunt him, tarnishing the little sense of self and conscience left in him.  After executing the act, Sam buries it deep inside him, but he is not the same person.
Meanwhile, going through grief, strange emptiness and loneliness in their new, forced upon lives, Grace and Tommy are drawn to each other. There’s a lovely scene, in which the couple smokes dope and exchange a kiss. Their longstanding frostiness dissolves, but both are frightened and ashamed of the mutual physical attraction that has replaced it.
Things change when Sam unexpectedly returns to the U.S., and a nervous mood settles over the entire family, especially affecting the two daughters, who in their dad’s absence have grown closer to Tommy. Uncharacteristically withdrawn and volatile, Sam grows suspicious of his brother and his wife, and accuses both of betraying him.
With their familiar roles nearly reversed, Sam and Tommy end up facing the ultimate physical and mental challenge when they confront each other. In the shifting family dynamics, who will dominate? And how will the brothers come to terms with issues of love, loyalty, and manhood—and with the woman caught between them?
As evident in his previous films (“My Left Foot”, “In America”), Sheridan has good ears and eyes for attention to detail in delineating complex family relationships, but his astute if impersonal direction is further compromised by the middlebrow and straightforward text, penned by Benioff, a writer who has diluted other interesting texts (“The Kite Runner”) with a blatant, overly explicit narrative approach.  For “Brothers” to be emotionally powerful and dramatically compelling, it needed to be more complex, subtle, and ambiguous.
Screen names may not matter that much, but in this picture, they’re indicative of the overall conventional approach. Take Shepard’s name, Hank Cahill, signifying American old stock (and alluding perhaps to Henry Fonda’s nickname man, combined with John Wayne’s hero in a late movie called “Cahill: U.S. Marshall”), not to mention Sam, Tommy, and Grace.
Tobey Maguire has the splashy role, which calls for big dramatic scenes in which he is asked to act crazy, a demented war victim; in some of them, with his hair shaven and pale look, Maguire looks like a sci0fi creature.  Moreover, hampered by a boyish voice (which was charming when he was a teenager), Maguire tends to overact, particularly in the last reel, proving that more is just less. The scene in which he pulls a gun at his brother and threatens to kill himself is one of the film’s weakest moments.
The little subtlety the film has belongs to Portman as the conflicted and loyal wife, and Gyllenhaal, who continues to develop as an actor. Both thespians render subtle, understated performances, and there’s good chemistry between them. Portman and Gyllenhaal shine in a priceless scene, in which Grace tries to prove that she is not as square (“cliché cheerleader,” as she says), talking about U2 music while smoking dope.
Joining a growing list of movies, which began with “In America,” “Brothers” demonstrates how tough it is for a director like Jim Sheridan to find a project that’s worthy of his considerable talents.
Capt. Sam Cahill – Tobey Maguire
Tommy Cahill – Jake Gyllenhaal
Grace Cahill – Natalie Portman
Hank Cahill – Sam Shepard
Isabelle Cahill – Bailee Madison
Maggie Cahill – Taylor Geare
Pvt. Joe Willis – Patrick Flueger
Major Cavazos – Clifton Collins Jr.
Cassie Willis – Carey Mulligan
Yusuf – Omid Abtahi
Sweeney – Ethan Suplee
Elsie Cahill – Mare Winningham
A Lionsgate release presented in association with Relativity Media of a Sighvatsson Films, Relativity Media, Michael De Luca Prods. production. Produced by Ryan Kavanaugh, Sigurjon Sighvatsson, De Luca.
Executive producers, Tucker Tooley, Jon Feltheimer, Scott Fischer, Zach Schiff-Abrams.
Co-producers, Kenneth Halsband, Mark Fischer, Matt Battaglia.
Co-executive producer, Jeremiah Samuels.
Directed by Jim Sheridan.
Screenplay, David Benioff, based on the motion picture “Brothers” written by Susanne Bier and Anders Thomas Jensen.
Camera, Frederick Elmes.
Editor, Jay Cassidy.
Music, Thomas Newman; music supervisor, Gina Amador.
Production designer, Tony Fanning.
Art director, Guy Barnes; set designers, Patti Klawonn, Andrew Gartner; set decorator, Wendy Barnes.
Costume designer, Durinda Wood.
Sound , Pud Cusack; supervising sound editor, Jerry Ross; re-recording mixers, Skip Lievsay, Phil Barrie, Doug Hemphill.
Visual effects supervisor, Jonah Loop; visual effects, Joseph Conti.
Stunt coordinator, Scott Sproule; assistant director, Joe Camp III; second unit director, Nye Heron; second unit camera, Phil Pfeiffer, Mike Lohmann; casting, Avy Kaufman; location casting, Jo Edna Boldin.
MPAA Rating: R.
Running time: 104 Minutes.








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