Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Review: Brothers

I'm really only interested in the actors. In a certain regard, performance is a lie. -- Director Jim Sheridan

Nate gave me a good heads up about a movie a while back, and it finally surfaced in the Netflix queue.

The movie is "Brothers," and it centers around Capt. Sam Cahill (Tobey Maguire), who goes off to fight in Afghanistan just after his younger brother Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal) gets out of prison for armed robbery. After he leaves, Tommy becomes close to Sam's family, including his wife Grace (Natalie Portman) and his two daughters.

An obvious situation develops where we wonder if Tommy will get too close. And when Sam is presumed dead in a helicopter crash, the characters find themselves drawn together all the more, as they grieve the loss of Sam.

What seems like somewhat of a soap-opera like premise -- and nearing melodramatic territory -- is strengthened by the performances of the actors.

With Maguire playing Sam with an intensity I haven't seen from him very much, Tommy offsets him as the guy that always took the wrong path, always "gave up" while his brother succeeded in everything, and while it's somewhat of a cliche character-type, you always end up rooting for that character ... and you root for him here.

The boys' father (Sam Shepard) doesn't hide his preference for Sam over Tommy -- being a former Marine certainly doesn't help Tommy's case -- and where you can overplay this type of role, Shepard is able to convey the love the father still has for Tommy that has been blacked out by his disdain for him all these years, which isn't easy to do.

Natalie Portman and Bailee Madison (Lionsgate)
I liked Portman's performance. She never overdoes the multiple emotional scenes she's involved in, you can tell she's listening and reacting rather than hamming it up and she conveys a high level of maturity, honesty and strength throughout. This is demonstrated in the scene where a soldier and chaplain are standing on her front porch to deliver the news of Sam's death, and her reaction of simply seeing them at her door. To fully appreciate that scene, I recommend watching "The Messenger," which offers an excellent perspective about soldiers who are assigned to deliver these death notices to family.

I don't think it's spoiling anything to say that Sam survives the crash, because his scenes in which he becomes a prisoner of war by the Taliban are intercut with Tommy, Grace and his daughters carrying on with their lives simultaneously. And it sets up his inevitable stormy return home.

Sam is imprisoned by the Taliban along with his friend, and private, Joe Willis, and the scenes appear to me to be frighteningly realistic. My blood ran cold when a sinister Taliban leader is talking callously about Sam's daughters while I thought of them innocently playing at home, blissfully ignorant of such evil in the world.

Tobey Maguire and Jake Gyllenhaal (Lionsgate)
Sam and Joe are kept in a hole and tortured for months and while Willis gives in, Cahill does not. After Cahill doesn't break, the Taliban forces him to kill Willis, or they will both be killed.

It's one of those "what would you do in this situation" scenes that I like, but also find uncomfortable. It seems easy to say that you would give a big middle finger to the Taliban there and sacrifice your life, rather than killing someone else to save your own skin.

But there was more at play here. What if you're in Sam's shoes and have a wife and children at home? What's more important, refusing to kill someone and sacrificing your life in the process ... or killing your friend, who also has a wife and children, to save your life so you can go back to your family where you are loved and needed?

There is no easy answer here, and it bothers me that I don't know the correct call to make.

I found it interesting that this movie is a remake of the Danish film "Brodre," which won the Sundance Film Festival Audience Award in 2005. I saw some clips of this film in the special features, and it would be interesting to compare the two. The Danish film appears more raw, more gritty, while Sheridan's film may have a little bit of a Hollywood sheen on it.

But what I appreciate about Sheridan's version, is that this is a story that is identifiable to so many Americans who have family fighting overseas, and this more than justifies the remake. Those of us who haven't served can't imagine the frustration of a soldier returning home, having experienced such horrific atrocities, and being unable to convey their feelings about what they went through, and worse, our inability to understand and relate to their experience.

Sheridan's track record of dealing with family trying to stay together during tragedy, trials and tribulations is flawless when you think of movies like "In America," "The Boxer," "In the Name of the Father," and "My Left Foot," and he has the ability to draw raw emotion and genuineness from his actors that makes us forget it's an actor giving a performance.

So having a guide like Sheridan to bring such a relatable story to Americans during this time is really something to appreciate.

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