Director Jim Sheridan may have figured out a way around the war-on-terror movie jinx that has kept everything from “Jar Head” to “In the Valley of Elah” and “Lions for Lambs” off the top ten box office list. He turns the volume way down, making a quiet movie that keeps the action to a minimum and lets the emotion of the piece to the talking. Oh, and he’s cast three appealing actors, Spiderman, Prince Dastan and Senator Padmé Amidala (that’s Tobey Maguire, Jake Gyllenhaal and Natalie Portman to you) doing some of the best work of their collective careers.
For the purposes of the story Gyllenhaal and Maguire are Cain and Able, diametrically opposed brothers. Tommy (Gyllenhaal) is a bad seed, freshly released from prison after a bank robbery gone wrong. Sam (Maguire) is a captain in the Marines, a former high school football star, husband to Grace (Portman) and father to two adorable daughters (Bailee Madison and Taylor Geare). When Sam’s Black Hawk helicopter is shot down in Afghanistan’s Pamir Mountains he is presumed dead. Back home Tommy tries to fill the gap left by his brother, playing dad to the kids and platonically comforting Grace. The twist is that Sam is not dead; he’s been captured and tortured by Taliban fighters. When he is liberated and brought back to the States, his easy, warm smile is gone, replaced by paranoid volatility.
“Brothers” is a slow burn of a movie. Dialogue driven, the action moves slowly, allowing us to get a good sense of who these people are and why they behave the way they do. Lots of biographical information is delivered, but much is left to our imaginations. Tommy, for instance, is just out of jail, but we never find out the details of his crime. Instead as Sam and Tommy drive past a bank Sam asks, “Are you ever gonna apologize to that woman?” and we get the whole picture.
The movie is ripe with such moments. When Grace confronts her dead husband’s closet for the first time it is played silently, but packs a wallop. Sheridan isn’t afraid to let the audience think for themselves, and imagine how they would react in similar situations. Call it “method watching” if you like, it demands the audience to fill in the blanks, and it is an effective way to tell an emotional story.
It’s an emotional story, but not a complicated one. Sheridan even has Grace say at one point, “I am such a cliché,” and she’s right. Many of the characters are by-the-book—there’s the bad boy who finds redemption through family, the hard-as-nails former military man—but these actors add shades of grey to otherwise black-and-white renderings. Gyllenhaal brings warmth to a character who shouldn’t have any, Portman has a strong veneer but there is sadness in her eyes and Maguire, despite a tendency to be a bit bug-eyed effectively portrays Sam’s confusion. “I can’t be there,” he says of his home. “They don’t understand me. Nobody understands me.”
The supporting cast is equally strong. Sam Sheppard still has a profile worthy of Mount Rushmore, but now has the beer belly to go with it and it gives his character some heft, literally and figuratively but it is Bailee Madison and Taylor Geare as daughters Isabelle and Elsie who really shine. They are remarkably endearing without giving the kind of precious performances that mar so many kid’s roles.
“Brothers” isn’t a war movie it’s a movie about what happens after war, and in its own quiet way shows the toll war takes on not only the people overseas but those who stay home as well.
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