Tuesday, March 23, 2010

On DVD: "Brothers"

Jim Sheridan’s Brothers is a film that gets so many of its small moments absolutely right, you’re tempted to call it a great movie and be done with it. The problem is that it doesn’t nail the big picture; it’s got some great scenes and performances, but it bites off more than it can chew. If its goals and ideas had been more modest, they might have really had something.

The story (entirely divulged in Lionsgate’s spoiler-iffic trailer) concerns the Cahill family: Marine Captain Sam Cahill (Tobey Maguire), his wife Grace (Natalie Portman), and Sam’s brother Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal), the black sheep who is getting out of prison mere days before Sam re-deploys to Afghanistan. Relations are strained, particularly between Tommy and the boys’ dad (Sam Shepard), a career military man; things aren’t exactly rosy between Tommy and Grace either. But all of that changes when Sam’s chopper is shot down and he is presumed dead—it draws the family tight, and as Tommy becomes something of a surrogate father to Grace and Sam’s daughters, he is drawn closer to his sister-in-law.

Sam then reappears; he was not killed in combat after all, but kidnapped and tortured before a tense rescue. His return is a surprise to Tommy and Grace, but not to the audience—Sheridan intercuts his tribulations in Afghanistan with the grieving of his loved ones, and I’m not sure that this choice works. Strangely, the drama back home is of greater interest, primarily because it seems fresher than the Maguire scenes—as sturdily executed as they might be, they’re recycled from countless other war movies. In addition, if the marketing had managed to keep it in the bag (which is dubious), his unexpected return could have been a truly shocking (and invigorating) plot turn, followed by glimpses and flashes of his ordeal, as they pertained to the unfolding of the story.

What Sheridan and screenwriter David Benioff (adapting the Danish film Brødre) get right are the intimate moments, the warm family scenes that quickly evaporate. The complicated relationship between Tommy and his father is one of the picture’s most fully realized; I particularly liked how their reunion after his prison stint consists of a pair of one-word greetings (“Son.” “Sir.”) and a terse handshake. Late in the film, Sheridan stages a tense family dinner that slowly boils up and over; there, as in the entirety of the film, his direction is simple and straightforward but brutally effective.

The performances are, for the most part, quite good. Portman’s delicate, fragile work is the standout—she captures a woman doing her best to be strong, but perpetually fighting off tears, choosing not to let them go. It’s a beautifully constructed, deeply felt performance, and watching it causes one to seriously question the sanity of Slate’s Dana Stevens, whose stunningly wrong-headed review is basically a drive-by shooting of the actress (let us never forget, when considering Stevens’ thoughts on the current cinema, that she wrote City of Angels and For Love of the Game). Gyllenhaal is similarly impressive; his is a tricky performance that keeps a lot of things hidden, from his raffish sense of humor to his quiet, bitter anger, and then gradually reveals them.

Maguire’s work isn’t terribly nuanced—it certainly isn’t a bad performance, but he’s only got about two speeds here, always either at 1 or at 10, and while that might be an accurate representation of the repressed and scarred combat vet, it doesn’t make for the most compelling on-screen dynamic. (He could also use some coloration within those two levels—his bug-eyed intensity grows tiresome by the picture’s end.) Shepard is very good (c’mon, Shepard is always good), as is the rest of the supporting cast—though, knowing what we now know about Carey Mulligan (from An Education), it seems a waste to only use her in one scene (though it is a helluva good scene).

The story comes to a head in a tough, difficult, and keyed-up climax, though the resolution is probably a little too easy; the closing scene feels rushed, the final voice-over overly simplistic. That’s a shame; Brothers is a film with passages of tremendous power, and performances with real guts. But it’s also uneven and a bit spotty, ultimately unable to place what works into a context that pays off.

"Brothers" is available today on DVD and Blu-ray.

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