Tommy quickly settles back into familiar habits. He's wholly aware that he's not ever going to clear the bar that someone as universally adored as Sam has set, and especially after being sneered at yet again by their overbearing father (Sam Shepard), Tommy looks at his brother with a mix of envy, admiration, and resentment. Sam's off fighting the good fight; Tommy's getting hammered on liquor he can't actually pay for. In the wee hours of the morning, Tommy drunkenly stumbles back to Grace's house with the keys to Sam's truck and a busted tail light. Halfway through a borderline-incoherent explanation about how Sam offered to let him use his truck whenever he wanted, Grace interrupts: Sam's dead. His helicopter was shot down in Afghanistan, and those onboard who didn't die in the initial assault soon drowned after the wreckage plummeted into the water below.
It's a tragic loss, one that compels Tommy to at long last step up as a man. It's an awkward start to be sure as Tommy begins rebuilding Grace's kitchen without bothering to so much as mention it to her beforehand, but Uncle Tommy for the first time starts to feel as if he's part of a family. He, Grace, and the kids quickly grow close...perhaps a little too close. Though they've been told that Sam is dead, he did in fact survive the initial attack in Afghanistan. He and a young private have been sealed by Afghani terrorists in an underground bunker: starved, tortured, and forced to do the unspeakable in the name of survival. Sam soon returns home, but nothing is as he left it...not his marriage, not his bond with his daughters, and least of all himself.
The trailers for Brothers chose to overemphasize the relationship between one man and the wife of a brother he believes to be dead. That's really not what this film is about at all, though. The guilt that torments Tommy and Grace stems from the way they clearly feel about each other rather than to whatever extent they've indulged. This is entirely in keeping with a movie that's far more interested in emotions...in its characters...than standard issue, melodramatic plot points. Brothers ultimately isn't driven by what happens to its characters; it's about how these people react in the face of it all. The film draws so much of its strength from the fact that Sam, Tommy, Grace, et al do come across as people rather than
Sheridan certainly coaxes the best out of his actors. Tobey Maguire and Natalie Portman in particular are often shrugged off as lightweights by critics, but both put in remarkably strong performances here. It's particularly a showcase for Portman, leaving the Manic Pixie Dream Girl love interest cliché behind to play a grieving young mother. The torment, the anguish, the warmth, the attraction, the regret...Portman shoulders a more expansive and more demanding array of emotions in this film than she's been asked to do at any point in the past decade, and she fields it all spectacularly well. Young, gawky, and unimposing, Maguire is an unconventional choice to play Capt. Sam Cahill, but that rather seems to be the point. His descent at the hands of his Afghani tormenters is remarkably harrowing. It's a performance that's largely driven by his eyes...once full of life and now hollow, empty, and wasted away. There are a few moments near the end where Maguire is unconvincing and overplays it -- and considering how thoroughly Sam implodes, going too far takes some effort -- but otherwise, it's an astonishing turn and may be the best performance of his I've seen. Jake Gyllenhaal is terrific as ever, bringing to Brothers an impressively layered performance. Tommy is at his lowest point when his character is first introduced, but Gyllenhaal manages to make him instantly engaging and sympathetic just the same. With minimal dialogue, he immediately conveys that Tommy isn't a bad guy; he wants to do well but has convinced himself that nothing he ever does will be good enough in the eyes of his brother and father, so why bother? The attraction between Tommy and Grace comes across as genuine rather than scripted...out of a longing to fill a gaping void rather than standard issue lust.
The supporting cast is wonderful as well. Sam Shepard is a standout as Sam and Tommy's domineering father...someone who's quick to sneer and cut Tommy down to size while cheerfully overlooking his own many faults. I appreciate that Shepard isn't always on the attack, though. Most other movies with this sort of character would've hammered the same note time and again, but Brothers shows both the combustible side as well as the well-meaning but awkward, forced attempts at putting up with a son he can't bring himself to embrace. Even when he tries to reconcile, a few barbs cut through, and I'm left with the sense that this isn't even intentional on Hank's part...it's just a fundamental part of who he is. Both of the young actresses playing Sam and Grace's daughters are terrific, particularly Bailee Madison who impressed me so much
It may also be worth noting that Brothers isn't a political film. This is a story that could just as easily be set against the backdrop of any war, past or present, and there are no political jabs whatsoever. Indeed, Sam refuses to speak against America's involvement in Afghanistan even under the most brutal torture. (Though the movie itself is apolitical, It's difficult to ignore that Brothers is a remake of the Dutch film Brødre, which was shot in 2004 and revolves around this same war that, all these years later, continues unabated.) Like The Best Years of Our Lives and The Deer Hunter before it, Brothers isn't about war itself but the aftermath. Though there are a couple of devastating sequences in Afghanistan, Sheridan sets as much of the film on the homefront as he can as that's where his interest primarily lies.
Brothers is a remarkable film, weaving together its story of a fractured family...about loss and rebuilding...with a spectacularly talented cast on the bill and a drive to explore the smaller moments. The anguish and heartbreak that permeate Brothers are so devastatingly effective because these characters are so richly drawn. Jim Sheridan has the restraint to flesh them out rather than breathlessly rush from one plot point to the next, and he balances the anguish with enough warmth and personality that Brothers doesn't unfold like an unrelentingly bleak descent. The film resonates as deeply as it does because every last frame of it feels so real. Highly Recommended.
This high definition release of Brothers brings out the best of Frederick Elmes' striking cinematography. The scope image is richly detailed and impressively crisp, easily trouncing anything DVD could hope to reproduce. Brothers also boasts a faint but still nicely filmic texture throughout. The photography isn't intensely stylized; the bulk of the movie features a reasonably natural palette that looks terrific on Blu-ray, while the sequences set in Afghanistan drain away much of the color. The moments in the Middle East also choose to flatten the contrast somewhat, and this too is presumably a deliberate aesthetic choice. As expected for a movie just a few months removed from its original theatrical release, Brothers is free of any speckling or wear. Also, despite its lower-than-average bitrate -- the 105 minute film with its beefy lossless soundtrack only uses 16.6 gigs -- I couldn't spot any missteps in Brothers' AVC encode, and the image doesn't strike me as having been overly filtered to ease compression either. This is a strong showing by Lionsgate and is well-worth the modest premium over the DVD release.
Brothers' six-channel, 24-bit DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is understated but effective. This is a film intensely driven by the emotions of its performances, so it follows that the mix is rooted around its dialogue. Aside from a few stretches where the dialogue is dialed down in the mix for dramatic effect, every line is rendered cleanly and clearly. Even the more incendiary line readings aren't marred by so much as a flicker of clipping or distortion. The surround channels are largely reserved for splashes of atmospheric color, although the assaults in Afghanistan are understandably more aggressive, however briefly. Brothers has little need to unleash any sort of thunderous low-end, and the modest use of the surrounds complements the approach of the film well enough. Subdued but deservedly so.
Jim Sheridan's audio commentary aside, there aren't any alternate soundtracks on this disc: no dubs or downmixes. Subtitles are offered in English (traditional and SDH) and Spanish.
The review copy of Brothers that I was sent has a hub for a second disc, but there's no DVD or digital copy packaged alongside it this time around.
The Final Word
Don't be misled by the soapy marketing: Brothers isn't a love triangle set against the backdrop of the conflict in Afghanistan. No, this is instead the story of a fractured family struggling to heal its wounds. Brothers is intensely emotional without settling for the maudlin or sentimental, and the impressive performances by Tobey Maguire and Natalie Portman may mark career bests for both actors. Powerful and resonant, Brothers may have been largely overlooked theatrically but deserves to be discovered on Blu-ray. Highly Recommended.