But let’s not be disingenuous: Susanne Bier’s 2004 Danish film of the same name, upon which this is based, sprang from the fact that Western soldiers had been deployed in the Middle East. And part of the immense power of Jim Sheridan’s (In America) adaptation—scripted by David Benioff (The Kite Runner, 25th Hour)—comes from the knowledge that the drama we see unfolding here is not unique and isolated, but represents the stress fractures pulling apart many military families. It’s supremely unfair to the many real people who will see themselves in this movie to pretend it isn’t about them. It’s supremely unfair to anyone who talks about “supporting the troops” to deny them the support of an honest, tough movie like this one.
So, yes, Brothers is a movie about our soldiers today in Iraq and Afghanistan. Deal with it.
It’s striking how closely Sheridan’s film parallels Bier’s, down to specific instances of sharp dialogue, and even more striking how different the two films feel nevertheless. There’s an emotional edge-of-the-seat-ness here that overshadows the original (which is still a very good film in its own right). It’s half a decade later on from when Bier made her film, for one thing, and those soldiers are still there in the Middle East. Sheridan captures that layering on of war-weary years through his extraordinary cast, who carry it like a physical weight. This is a remarkable showcase for Maguire, Jake Gyllenhaal and Natalie Portman, who remind us again that they are three of the most expressive, most compelling young actors working today. It sneaks up on you in this film, how startlingly good they are; how they can hit you with an emotion you didn’t see coming but that feels so perfectly right anyway.
It’s there in one early scene, as the Cahill family sits down to a tense dinner. One brother, Tommy (Gyllenhaal) is just out of prison for initially unknown reasons. The other, Sam (Maguire), is a Marine captain off again to Afghanistan and eager for it; once there, he ponders how it “almost feels like home.” Grace (Portman), Sam’s wife, is the quiet anchor who has been keeping the rest of the family together—her and Sam’s small daughters, Isabelle (Bailee Madison) and Maggie (Taylor Geare); the brothers’ dad, Hank (Sam Shepard), an ex-Marine himself; and his wife, Elsie (Mare Winningham).
The road map of the story to come is laid bare here, in the things no one can say to one another and the things they can. There’s a triangle of deep bitterness, disappointment and resentment between Hank and his sons, and it’s here that the amazing performance that young Madison will give begins to reveal itself. In some ways, Isabelle will be the canvas upon which the family drama will paint itself; the actress, who only just turned 10, is able to express the terrible inner turmoil of a child watching her family fall apart. I’ve never seen a child so young be so effective—and heartbreaking—onscreen.
What may be most startling is that even if you know the grand sweep of the whole story—the trailer alone appears to reveal all, and familiarity with the Danish film will do it, too, of course—you cannot know how intensely, wrenchingly potent Brothers is without having seen it through. To say that Sam is lost in Afghanistan and presumed dead, and that his family mourns him and moves on, and then has to readjust again when he is found and returns home is no kind of spoiler. (Indeed, the fact that Sam is not dead is not a matter of suspense at all.) It is in all the same, eloquent, authentic details of the people, not the plot, that makes this movie work as well as it does.