In my review of The Hurt Locker, I gushed about how it produces an effective take on modern-day wars by making them personal and compelling its audience to sympathize with the soldiers who fight in them. Brothers takes a similar tack, but its focus is much narrower, and as a result we don’t come away feeling like we’ve learned much of anything about the bigger picture. Like The Hurt Locker, it is apolitical in its view of the war (which in this case is in Afghanistan, rather than Iraq). Its aim is not to provide a commentary on war itself, or any war in particular, but rather to evoke an emotional response to war in general and what it does to the people involved.
As the title makes obvious, it’s about a pair of brothers. The younger one, Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal), is a ne’er-do-well bad boy who has just been released from prison after serving time for armed robbery. Sam, the older brother (Tobey Maguire), is a Marine who gets deployed to Afghanistan, and is believed to have been killed—and in order to talk about this film at all, I have to reveal that he actually isn’t. He’s captured and presumed dead, and just when his wife Grace (Natalie Portman) is beginning to cope with the loss of her husband—thanks to the help of Tommy—Sam gets rescued and returned home. Thoroughly traumatized by his ordeal, he has a hard time re-acclimating himself to the family life, which is complicated by his suspicions that his brother and his wife have gotten a little too close in his absence.
The screenplay by David Benioff, adapted from the Danish film Brødre, is the kind of writing that you feel is just jerking you around most of the time. When Sam returns home, it’s never made clear what kind of a relationship with his wife he has, as important a detail as this may seem. Do they resume sleeping together immediately? What does he do to re-insert himself into his children’s lives? He’s suspicious of his brother, in particular the role Tommy has taken on in helping out with his daughters and providing companionship for Grace, but the details are only explored by side effect. There’s a brief scene showing that he’s now uncomfortable with his wife seeing his body, scrawny and wounded as it now is, and that’s about it until things come to a head, leaving us to infer the specifics along the way.
The dialogue is also a bit over-dramatic, but the three leads are good enough to keep it respectable. While Tobey Maguire will get all of the attention for pulling the inverse Raging Bull and shedding a ton of weight between his early scenes and his later ones, I actually thought Natalie Portman and Jake Gyllenhaal did more to keep the film grounded. There’s a joke (popularized by Tropic Thunder) that playing a retarded person is a surefire way to secure an Oscar nomination, and I think drastic weight gain or loss is in that same category, but Maguire really does an impressive job with his character’s metamorphosis. His costars are even more impressive, though, for the more subtle transitions their characters go through, which are really the highlight of the film.
I may be wrong about one thing: when Sam gets back from Afghanistan, the townspeople repeatedly refer to him as a war hero in a manner that I took to be a bit derogatory (their characters are sincere in saying it, but I found myself wondering exactly what it was he’d done that was so hero-like—you’ll see what I mean—which, actually, may have been the film’s intention after all). Nonetheless, the primary focus of Brothers is on two young men whose lives are moving in opposite directions, and the woman who comes between them. As a film about a love triangle, it’s actually quite tame, and the strong leading cast is really all it’s got going for it, but they are good enough to keep things somewhat interesting.