Sunday, December 20, 2009

Movies: "Brothers"

This weekend I attended two films notable for their intensity. Both “Brothers” and “Precious” tell moving, highly charged personal stories of characters coping with brutal circumstances. Both films are honest and unflinchingly emotional, although they are as unlike each other stylistically as they could be….as if they existed in completely different mediums. They are each, in their own way, about wars fought on world battlefields as well as domestic ones. Both tell tales of characters surviving, and, yes, reinventing themselves. Today I will review….


“Brothers”, Jim Sheridan’s drama of a family coping with the return of one brother from prison and another from Afghanistan, is a chamber piece whose tight focus on the intimate anguish of a small number of characters is worthy of a piece by Bergman. I admired the closely observed details of a typical suburban family, their effort to make a good life, and their sincere attempts to heal the wounds they inflict on each other.

Small details in the design are captured with amazingly authentic lighting by David Lynch-lenser Frederick Elmes (who specializes in a certain creepy, unbalanced framing of benign, everyday American settings). The furniture, popular artifacts, fabrics on the beds, posters on the walls, casually observed kitsch at the edges of the frame, the entertainment centers, the variety of glassware in a kitchen cabinet; even the patched-up cracks in the pavement down Main Street, are perfect. Early on, I settled comfortably, happily, into this world, and began to love these people, flaws and all.

My comfort was short-lived, as the film builds to an intensity bordering on melodrama.

Toby McGuire is a career Marine ready for another deployment to Afghanistan. On the eve of his departure, his brother, Jake Gyllenhaal, is released from prison for an unspecified crime of violence against a woman who still lives in town. Natalie Portman is just right as McGuire’s wife, whose kindness to Gyllenhall sets him on his road to redemption, and kindles a chaste romance. The story builds quietly and then pulls us into a vortex of family violence and pain.  I was shaken by this film.

All of the performances are first-rate. I found it difficult in the first half hour to accept Gyllenhaal as a convict-- he has such a hang-dog romantic visage and a nice-guy aura, regardless of a rather attractive beard---- but he settles into the character and shows the most significant change.

Sam Shepherd has never been better in the role of the stubborn father who pits one brother against the other. He manages the difficult task of making this character sympathetic. The two little girls playing the daughters of McGuire and Portman met the demands of their roles with aplomb; the young actress playing the older sister can cry on a dime….and will likely be tapped for more emotional parts as she grows up.

McGuire is unforgettable as a haunted man (only once, in a scene in a car, did I feel it was laid on too thick) composing himself with a stillness and menacing stare worthy of the trauma that has befallen him. After a series of tragic events, McGuire returns home unexpectedly, and in a sequence that recalls Hal Ashby’s “Coming Home”, all three must adjust, pull together, and help each other.

The war in Afghanistan forms the horrific centerpiece to the film, a scene of such power I objected at first to its inclusion; but came to understand it better, as we witness the anguished McGuire, a victim of his obsessions, unable to verbalize, and thus heal, the tragedy of his participation in the death of one “brother’ in wartime, as he symbolically “kills” another brother by destroying the hard work that pulled Gyllenhaal back to respectability.

The Afghan war in this film is completely apolitical….the concern here is not with the futility of a particular war, but all war, if it destroys the spirits of those who “survive”. The film is, finally, concerned with the rhythms of the everyday, and how sincere and loving people need to come together to manage a horrific world. Sheridan is still riding on my good will from “My Left Foot”. As he demonstrated then, directing Daniel Day Lewis’ anguished, head-banging slow burn, Sheridan is a master of the slow lead-up to an explosion of anger and conflict. He also showed marvelous restraint here in the Afghan scenes, where from a director of less taste and sensitivity the sequence would have been hugely objectionable. I admired his decision to keep the Afghan backgrounds crisp and in true color, rather than the bleached-out exposure many directors use in Middle-Eastern War films.  Like in "The Killing Fields", the horror is more heartbreaking in a surrounding of such rugged beauty.

If anything, the film ended too soon, failing to fully develop the intriguing themes it sets up, especially the ways the three leads must reinvent themselves to survive: Gyllenhall’s need for recognition, which, when received, helps him grow; McGuire’s “lack of quit” , that might have saved him, or else might have been his (if not our military’s) undoing; and Portman's resolution of her love for two very different men.  McGuire’s and Gyllenhall’s characters are actually apart for the majority of the film. I might have written a final scene between them, instead of the phone call. At any rate, I can see how McGuire’s small triumphs in communicating his feelings may set him back on a right course. The relationships go unresolved, however, and the finale raises questions rather than answers them….just like in the everyday lives these characters portray.

Tomorrow: Precious


  1. Have you seen Susanne Bier's original? I was wondering how it compares.

  2. Interesting set-up about the two brothers' homecoming; sounds intriguing. But I skipped over all but your first paragraph . . . I'll wait till I can see it for myself when it comes out on Netflix, now that you piqued my interest.

  3. Ben, I have not seen Bier's original. Do you know if it is available for home viewing? It would make a fascinating comparison.
    Russ, I hope the rest of the review proves to be as interesting as the opening!!

  4. The Bier version is on DVD. Definitely get that because this pales in comparison.

    I'm surprised you were sold on Gyllenhaal. I think he's the least convincing convict I've ever seen, but he has a brief shirtless scene. For that, I forgive him.

  5. Wow, sounds like an intriguing film. I agree with you about Gyllenhall being hard to accept as a convict, but I guess that's the true worth of an actor, stepping outside their comfort zone and selling themselves as something new. I really like Tobey Maguire too and am impressed at the serious roles he has taken on (Cider House Rules, Wonder Boys, etc.) in addition to his repeat role as Spiderman. I'll have to definitely put this on my list of films to check out in future. Thanks for a great review, Tom!