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A half-dozen fine performances help Brothers explore how poorly we’ve treated the veterans of our current wars

click to enlarge Jake Gyllenhaal in Brothers
  • Jake Gyllenhaal in Brothers

Because movies about the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have failed to catch the interest of audiences, I feel like I have to say, “Oh, don’t worry, Brothers isn’t really about what’s happening to our soldiers in the Middle East or what’s happening to them once they come home.” Sure, it’s true that this is a movie primarily about family, and sure, it’s true that the experiences in Afghanistan that change Tobey Maguire’s Marine and alter his family’s dynamics could just as easily have been the result of something other than war: It could have been a terrible crime or a horrible accident.

But Brothers is about our soldiers today in Iraq and Afghanistan. Deal with it.

It’s striking how closely Jim Sheridan’s Brothers parallels Susanne Bier’s 2004 Danish film of the same name, down to specific instances of sharp dialogue. It’s even more striking, nevertheless, how different the two fi lms feel. There’s an intensity, an emotional edge-of-the-seatness here that overshadows the original (which isn’t to say that Bier’s film isn’t very good). Sheridan’s Brothers takes place half a decade after Bier’s, for one thing.

Sheridan captures that layering on of years of war-weariness through his extraordinary cast, who carry it like a physical weight. Brothers is a remarkable showcase for Tobey Maguire, Jake Gyllenhaal and Natalie Portman, who reassert themselves as three of the most expressive, most compelling young actors working today. Their power sneaks up on you in this film, how startlingly good they are, how they can hit you with an emotion you didn’t see coming but that feels so perfectly right anyway.

It’s there in one early scene, as the Cahill family sits down to a tense dinner. One brother — Gyllenhaal’s Tommy — is just out of prison. The other — Maguire’s Sam, a Marine captain — is off to Afghanistan again. Sam’s wife Grace (Portman) is the quiet anchor who has been keeping the rest of the family together: their small daughters, Isabelle (Bailee Madison) and Maggie (Taylor Geare); the guys’ dad, Hank (Sam Shepard), an ex-Marine himself; and his wife Elsie (Mare Winningham). The road map of the story to come is laid bare in this scene. It’s in things both spoken and unspoken. There’s a triangle of deep bitterness, disappointment and resentment, for example, between Hank and his sons.

The dinner scene also starts to reveal the amazing performance of Bailee Madison. In some ways, Isabelle is the canvas upon which the family drama paints itself — and the actress, who only just turned 10, is able to express the terrible inner turmoil of a child watching her family fall apart. I’ve never seen a child so young be so effective onscreen — she’s heartbreaking.

Even if you’ve seen the Danish film, you can’t know how wrenchingly potent Brothers is. To reveal that Sam is lost in Afghanistan and presumed dead, and that his family mourns him and moves on, and then has to readjust again when he is found and returns home, is no kind of spoiler. (Indeed, the fact that Sam is not dead is not a matter of suspense at all.) Because it is in all the eloquent, authentic details of the people, not the plot, that makes Brothers
work as well as it does.

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