Sibling Rivalry Taken to Dangerous Extremes in ‘Brothers’


Based on Danish director Susanne Bier’s 2004 drama, Jim Sheridan’s sure-handed remake is not about a torrid love triangle, as the film’s ad campaign provocatively suggests. It is about Sam, a dedicated husband, father and Marine whose experiences as a Taliban prisoner in Afghanistan leave him bitterly withdrawn from his family and tortured by guilt.

Sam (Tobey Maguire) is his father’s golden child, a onetime football star who married his high-school sweetheart (Natalie Portman) and went on to serve his country. He prepares for a fourth tour in Afghanistan without complaint, not because he misses the heady rush of combat but because he takes pride in his work.

Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal) is Sam’s wayward brother, the one who refused to grow up. Incarcerated for armed robbery, he is released from prison just in time to see Sam off before retreating to the local pub. Their father (Sam Shepard) makes no secret of his contempt for Tommy – he’s the family’s black sheep, the prodigal son stumbling his way through life – but between Sam and Tommy we find a bond that is expressed in quick, knowing glances and pregnant silences that speak volumes.

The trailers for Brothers leave little to the imagination, so it is no surprise when Sam, captured behind enemy lines after his helicopter crashes, is rescued. Initially presumed dead, he returns home to find Grace and their two children getting along just fine thanks to Tommy, who has adopted them as a sort of surrogate family. Sam suspects infidelity, but the reality is far more innocent than he imagines.

Sam’s paranoia is symptomatic of post-traumatic stress, as well as the self-hatred he feels after one particularly brutal episode orchestrated by his captors. The real issue isn’t whether Grace and Tommy slept together – that’s a convenient excuse for the rage that Sam can no longer suppress, the disconnect he senses when civilians, even those dear to him, try to understand his pain. He struggles to justify his anger and picks the targets closest at hand.

To turn Sam’s tragedy into a lurid, Fatal Attraction-style melodrama would be to cheapen his story. Celebrated as a homecoming hero, he lashes out – it’s the natural recourse of a man living with a secret as dark as his – but can’t come to terms with the root of his misery. His wife and brother are collateral damage, caught within range of Sam’s fury.

Maguire, who delivers a haunting performance, has a tightly cropped crew cut and has never looked leaner or meaner. With his perfectly pressed shirts, neatly tucked in and buttoned to the collar even at home, he suggests a man whose universe demands order and discipline. He’s the opposite of Tommy, the military family misfit who bridles at authority, favoring a shaggy beard and a life free of structure. Their fraternal ties are strong enough to withstand those differences, but can they survive Sam’s postwar meltdown?

Sheridan’s Brothers is manipulative at times, never more so than in scenes, conveniently juxtaposed for maximum effect, of Sam’s children playing joyfully with Tommy while their father is held at gunpoint in Afghanistan, degraded without mercy by his captors. (Returning home, he looks as if he’s seen a ghost, and maybe he has – his own.) But Sheridan (My Left Foot) understands what makes his characters tick. Implicit in his story, told with intelligence and restraint, and smoothly removed from Copenhagen to small-town New Mexico by screenwriter David Benioff, is a recognition that the brothers’ problems run much deeper than jealousy.

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