Brothers is the classic example of a movie that tries to be too many things and ends up not being much of anything except overwrought.
I've never seen the Danish film on which this new version is based, but there's a Hollywood heavy-handedness at play here, despite the presence of Jim Sheridan as director. Perhaps the original is every bit as detailed in its war section of the film. I don't know. But this one feels contrived -- as though someone said, Hey, time to push buttons -- rather than organic. It's like a cynical attempt to make movie version of a downbeat Bruce Springsteen song.
The set-up is full of possibilities. Tobey Maguire and Jake Gyllenhaal play brothers Sam and Tommy Cahill. Sam (Maguire) is in the military and his unit has been called back to duty in the Middle East. Tommy (Gyllenhaal) is the family black sheep, just out of prison, no particular future ahead of him. He shrugs when Sam asks him to take care of his wife Grace (Natalie Portman) and their daughters, should anything happen to him.
Tommy tries -- but he and Grace seem incompatible, at least until Sam's helicopter is blown up on a mission and he's declared dead. Then Tommy steps up and becomes a surrogate dad to the two young girls -- and a friend and companion to Grace.
Then Sam comes home -- alive. Worse, he's been a POW, held captive and tortured by what we assume are the Taliban or al-Qaeda operatives. So his post-traumatic stress quotient is off the charts, particularly because of the things he had to do to survive in captivity.
The problem is that we've already seen what Sam's been through because Sheridan and writer David Benioff alternate scenes between Sam's captivity and the burgeoning relationship between Tommy and Grace. Those Middle East scenes are brutal and unyielding, but unnecessary.
By dramatizing Sam's ordeal, Sheridan robs it of the potency it would have if we were forced to imagine it. Instead, as Sam tries to return to normal life, he's a stereotypical time bomb on a short fuse, because we know his horrible secret. There's no question that he'll do something that potentially puts all of their lives in danger -- it's just a question of when.
Which is too bad, because the tension the rail-thin Maguire creates just by walking into a room is palpable. He's so twisted up that, having betrayed his own ideals under threat of death, he assumes everyone else is betraying him, too.
The suspense of the scenes with him, Portman and Gyllenhaal is terrific. Though both Tommy and Grace deny it, Sam is convinced they have cheated on him -- if they aren't still. The three actors give genuinely thoughtful performances, as the script allows.
But Benioff takes several melodramatic missteps here, as if the situation itself were not already rife with drama. The most egregious exploits the tension between the returned Sam and his young daughter. She's got a big mouth, has bonded with her uncle Tommy and doesn't like the version of her dad who's come home. And she says so, throwing gasoline on an already raging fire in his head, leading to obligatory (and pro forma) histrionics that aren't helpful, just stagey.
It's a manipulative and unnecessary ploy in a movie where less would definitely have been more.
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