December 10, 2009

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Brothers (R)
When a brother at war is lost, a brother at home cares for his family in Brothers, a mostly well-done movie about the collateral damage of war on the home front.

Capt. Sam Cahill (Tobey Maguire) is headed to Afghanistan just as his brother Tommy Cahill (Jake Gyllenhaal) is headed home from a stint in jail. Sam’s wife, Grace (Natalie Portman), is not overly fond of Tommy, and he doesn’t get along well with his father, Hank (Sam Shepard), himself a former soldier, either. But then one day Grace’s two young daughters — Maggie (Taylor Geare) and Isabelle (Bailee Madison) — answer the door to find two soldiers standing there and Grace, coming downstairs in her robe, starts to cry even before she invites them in. Sam, she is told, has died in a helicopter crash.

At first, this seems to push this shaky family to the edge. The girls refuse to wear their black dresses to the funeral; Tommy and his father get in a fight and are barely restrained by Hank’s wife Elsie (Mare Winningham); Grace regularly finds herself unable to sleep or, on other days, to get out of bed.

Slowly, however, they pull together. Previously unreliable Tommy becomes someone Grace can lean on, Hank starts to melt and see his younger son’s better qualities, the girls and Grace find moments of happiness. Sam may be dead but his family, though deeply wounded, is surviving.

Except Sam’s not dead.

As we see his family adjust, we also see Sam and another soldier taken prisoner by Afghan fighters and held for weeks in a bunker. They are starved, tortured, freezing. Sam holds it together — until he can’t and when he is finally rescued the look on his face tells you that the man going home has little in common with the man who left.

His homecoming and what happens after are what truly makes the movie. Warriors go to war, warriors come home — but these scenes are about the lasting horror of war, what happens to all the people (the soldier, the family) who are affected by battles halfway around the world long after they happen.

Like all the best movies about our current The War, Brothers works because it isn’t so much about The War, it’s about the people fighting it. You are left — mostly — to draw your own conclusions about whether or not the destruction caused by our various military engagements (destruction there, destruction here) is worth it.

With its very Hollywood leads, Brothers isn’t quite as subtle about it as some of the much praised smaller films like The Hurt Locker or The Messenger. But Gyllenhaal, Maguire and Portman all turn in strong performances. They do let movie star vanity go, in large part, and try to give you something like raw people. (Particularly in the case of Portman, who does let the movie Mom her up a bit.)

Brothers seems to me to be doing, with less nuance and more close-ups, roughly the same thing that The Messenger did — namely, give us the war as viewed from the home front. But in making a bigger movie with bigger stars, Brothers loses some of the quietness that makes the awfulness in The Messenger so awful, that makes the grief so heartbreaking. The Messenger was perfect; Brothers is merely good. B

Rated R for language and some disturbing violent content. Directed by Jim Sheridan and written by David Benioff (from the screenplay for Brødre by Susanne Bier and Anders Thomas Jensen), Brothers is an hour and 50 minutes long and distributed by Lionsgate.