Lost in the Movies: New on DVD: Brothers

New on DVD: Brothers

At first, all you can notice is how damn young everyone looks. Capt. Sam Cahill (Tobey Maguire) has the bearing and attitude of a grown man, but looks small and scrawny when uniformed as a Marine. He and his wife Grace (Natalie Portman) have two daughters, both well out of toddlerhood, and yet when they shepherd them through the living room or seat them at the dinnertable, they look like nothing else so much as two kids playing house. Sam's brother Tommy (Jack Gyllenhaal) is the only one here who really looks his age - yet as if to compensate for this physical maturity, he's the most immature in behavior, picking fights with his dad, getting drunk, banned from driving the car as if he's a 16-year-old who's been grounded. These characters hover uneasily between the youthfulness of their appearance (and perhaps the youthfulness of the roles we associate them with) and the gravity of the world they inhabit. The three characters - posed like Calvin Klein models in Brothers' weird poster - must face death, trauma, war, and the disintegration of a marriage, while raising children and trying to maintain their own sanity. They do this, or attempt to do this, as adults; this is one of the first movies to treat the Millennial generation as grown-ups.

The film essentially updates The Deer Hunter to the 21st century, turning that film's hunting buddies into actual siblings, and splitting the De Niro duties so that one gets tortured overseas by the enemy (albeit without any touches as potent or inflammatory as Deer Hunter's Russian Roulette) while the other romances the wife of a missing friend - or in this case, brother. Sam is preparing for another tour of Afghanistan just as Tommy is finishing up a prison sentence for armed robbery. When Sam's helicopter is downed and he is presumed dead by the Corps, Tommy starts spending more time with Grace and they grow closer (initially, she despised him), even sharing a joint and a kiss at one point. Meanwhile, Sam is alive but not well - captured by the Taliban, he endures an event that will probably shatter him for the rest of his life. Returning home, he's like a grinning skeleton, never quite there - a million miles away, until the moment when he'll snap.

There's something about Brothers that sticks with you, in spite of its flaws. The film contains some committed, sensitive performances (at least once it gets over its first-act jitters) and is able to sidestep some, if not all, of the melodrama inherent in its premise; though Jim Sheridan hasn't exactly been a model of restraint in the past, he keeps the drama simmering at a slow boil this time. Even the explosions of violent rage manage to skirt the edge, bypassing the point of no return at which they would succumb to trite histrionics (although they skate darn close, perhaps too close for some). The screenplay is from David Benioff, whose post-9/11 adaptation of his own novel 25th Hour displayed a skill for tapping into America's national trauma with intense, personal dramas, and it's filled with minor scenes which accumulate and central set pieces which work subtly rather than bombastically. Regardless of these virtues, the movie never quite coheres; despite strong moments and some deep resonances, it feels ill-fitting, hastily assembled, a bit lost and disconnected, like Maguire's character when he returns home from war.

Maybe it's that very quality, that sense of being home yet far from home at the same time, which both hinders the movie and gives it strength. I suppose it needs a firmer foundation to pull off this sense of alienation without losing its bearings - but either something went wrong in the cutting, and the potent material was mismanaged, or the filmmakers got to the editing room and found that they didn't quite have what they wanted. The crosscutting between the war and the homefront siphons some of the former's power; while the footage of "Afghanistan" (which according to online information is actually California or New Mexico) is striking, the scenes don't meet the threshhold war films from Saving Private Ryan to The Hurt Locker have maintained in order to seem "realistic." And scenes don't carry a charge from one to the next; any energy dissipates and must be kindled anew. Apparently, the movie is a remake of a Danish film, reputed to be its superior - perhaps something ineffable got lost in translation.

Yet if the movie doesn't work as a whole, it does work in spurts, and sometimes that's more satisfying, at least for the moment. What Brothers does have is a sense of life lived offscreen, or better yet an onscreen life which does not seem limited to surfaces or hewing to some superficial structure; this is a quality so rare in contemporary films that it's certainly worth celebrating. The two little girls (Bailee Madison and Taylor Geare) manage to mug convincingly, giving the sort of hyper yet naturalistic performances that most directors don't even bother to seek. (Sheridan also solicited winning performances from children in his 2002 In America.) The film has atmosphere, and its characters do exude a sense of history - one believes that their pasts extended before the film began and while the dialogue explaining these pasts is often clumsy and forced, the actors and the direction often sell us nonetheless.

The actors may be miscast, but they give the roles their all, despite appearances. If Maguire is too skinny to convince as a jarhead early on, his wirey intensity is just right for the physically and mentally scarred man who returns, and his gaunt fury and confusion is something to behold. Portman is lovely; she hasn't seemed so heartbreakingly attractive in years. If it's difficult to accept her as the mother of two elementary school-age girls, her warmth in the role (perhaps she should play these sorts of parts more often) compensates for any implausibility. At one point, Tommy teases Grace, telling her he thought she'd be more of an N*SYNC fan; it's startling to realize that mature, adult characters in a movie are still young enough for that reference to be apt. For those in a certain age group, the observation may seem poignant, and may resonate in a way that movies (with their celebrations of perpetual adolescence) rarely do. One doesn't have to be a war veteran or ex-prisoner to understand this. Anyone who has looked about a family gathering, realizing with shock that one's own generation has now taken up the reigns, can relate to this wistful sensation: of the immediate past being close enough to see, yet severed from the present by some irreparable divide (shown in the film when Grace gazes at the innocent portrait of her and her husband as teenagers in the nineties).

Taking the wide view, then, there's just something "off" about Brothers: a forced situation, stilted dialogue, dramatic lumpiness. No wonder some audiences recoiled at the more overwrought passages (see reports of laughter on the IMDb message board) and the awards groups passed it over, even while celebrating far more limited, yet more cohesive, movies like The Blind Side. But it's a film of little moments, passages, gestures, that click. Add it to that recent surge of movies which, like Rip Van Winkle stretching his arms and yawning after what seemed to be a brief nap, look about and realize that years have passed by, and we and the world have changed in the meantime. Though I've criticized the script, I suspect that writer Benioff had some hand in this accomplishment - after all, 25th Hour was the only movie of the Zeroes to capture the mood between September 11 and Iraq. That film existed in the calm just before the storm (indeed, that film ends with Edward Norton's character going off to prison, while this one begins with Jake Gyllenhaal getting out). Brothers exists in the aftermath, its children-men (and women) wandering through the rubble, trying to orient themselves. Messiness aside, Brothers is worth seeing, if only to catch glimpses of our own reflections in the scattered shards.

Also hitting disc yesterday: The Blind Side, which I reviewed last week, and Fantastic Mr. Fox which will be reviewed eventually in my "Best of the 21st Century?" series on Wonders in the Dark.

This review was originally published on the other Lost in the Movies site (and linked on The Sun's Not Yellow).


J.D. said...

"Portman is lovely; she hasn't seemed so heartbreakingly attractive in years. If it's difficult to accept her as the mother of two elementary school-age girls, her warmth in the role (perhaps she should play these sorts of parts more often) compensates for any implausibility."

I really like Portman and in the right role she can really hit it out of the park. Another film that really shows off her warmth and her "heartbreakingly" attractiveness as you so eloquently put it is WHERE THE HEART IS, which is I guess what you would call a "chick flick" but she displays an engaging vulnerability which is nice to watch.

Thanks for this excellent review! I had kinda been wondering about this film and like all three leads and enjoyed Sheridan's work on IN AMERICA so this seems like a good rental.

MovieMan0283 said...

I remember that movie coming out, along with Anywhere But Here, which I think was another chick flick. By that time my Portman crush had waned somewhat but there was a point when she was my favorite contemporary actress - this is the first movie I've seen in 10 years to recapture that feeling. Somehow it re-captures a vulnerability that she had as a teenager, even though in many ways this is one of her most "mature" roles.

J.D. said...

That sounds really promising. What did you think of her in CLOSER which seems like one of her more mature roles in recent years?

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

Well I'm glad you generally liked it, I suppose I'm more forgiving than you. I did like it, I didn't see the original but after the initially shock at their youth I think of my sister who has a seven year old and doesn't "look" as if she does. And you're right, Natalie acts well even if her looks throw you off. Sheridan makes pieces work that may not have, and for that I appreciate it. Another excellent review (shocker).

MovieMan0283 said...

Odd, thought I responded to this yesterday. Briefly then, I did not like Closer much as it seemed too forced and artificial. As for Natalie's role, that was closer to the usual portrayal of "maturity" in the movies - edgy, but without gravitas (more like overgrown adolescents than adults). I get it - that's usually more fun to watch! - but it's refreshing to see this kind of thing too.

Andrew, I agree Sheridan has a nice touch here. His ability to get winning, convincing performances from the kids was especially appreciated - so few directors seem to have that capability.

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