Only a few months ago Kathryn Bigelow helmed a mature and sophisticated modern day war drama. It was more than we could have asked for after several clunkers regarding war films in the 21st century. I was not aware that Brothers was a war film. The trailer, as good as it was, skirted over the importance of war as a thematic issue in the film. Of course, there’s only so much that can be shown in two minutes, and it was only upon reading M. Carter’s good review last week I realised that this was too be a war film, I was intrigued but not daunted.
Brothers is an adaptation of a Danish film, one that I have not seen. Tobey MaGuire and Jake Gylenhaal star as two brothers. Unsurprisingly one [MaGuire] is well loved, a soldier and the other is something a dead beat with serious daddy issues [played by Sam Shephard]. As the saying goes, a leader is born out of necessity and when Sam is lost in Afghanistan and presumed dead, Tommy begins taking a hand in the lives of his sister-in-law Grace [Natalie Portman] and her two children. Sam, of course, is not dead but imprisoned and he eventually returns home. Now with just this we could have gotten a good, if blasé film, but there’s more. What takes this film further is the horrors that Sam experiences while in Afghanistan.
Brothers, regardless of the budget, is what you’d call a small film. There is a startlingly intimacy and nuance to the whole thing and a film like that demands good performances. I was especially looking forward to Natalie Portman’s performance. She and costar Scarlett Johansson were killed in that ridiculous adaptation of Phillipa Gregory’s horrific novel The Other Boleyn, and I was anxious to see her in an adult role. Natalie plays her character well. The role is a bit of a second fiddle role, and for some point demands little but her facial expressions are accurate even when her lines don’t say much and she’s able to pull it off well. I really liked Jake Gylenhaal in this. I suppose the argument can be made that he isn’t asked to do too much, but that’s just overlooking his performance. The two scenes I recall immediately with Jake is one where he actually has no lines. It’s after the final dinner scene of the film and Sam is having a meltdown of sorts. The look on Jake’s face is so sombre and well played. It’s easy to overlook, but it’s perfect. And as he raises his arms it’s hard to say which is sadder his expression or Tobey’s. And speaking of Tobey, I guess it’ll be said by all – he gives his best performance here. Of course he has the best role, and he doesn’t waste. The final scene of the film with him and Portman is so subtle and just nicely done.
Brothers focuses on these three but the supporting cast is quite good. Carey Mulligan has one scene where she shares a moment of bonding with Natalie Portman. It’s weird seeing her play someone so old, but she pulls of her little but important role perfectly. Mare Winningham and Sam Shepherd are the perfect parental backdrop and Mare especially impresses me with little to not screentime. The standouts of the supporting cast though are the two child actors who plays Grace and Sam’s children. I’m always iffy about child actors, but these two girls are quite good in their roles especially the older [Taylor Geare].
Brothers should be a successful film, but I have a feeling it won’t find much love in the awards race. They already have a war film to laud, the December glut warrants that at least one good film must be overlooked [see Revolutionary Road] and I fear maybe it’s just a bit to subtle. Maybe I'm just too biased towards Sheridan's films. Or, maybe if I had seen the original I’d have thought differently of it, but I didn’t so I can’t. I was a bit miffed at the bad reviews I’ve seen, but nothing is love by everyone. Personally, Brothers represents a film that’s sure enough of itself that it never tries everything. It doesn’t pretend to be a film about everyone. It’s a film about one family, and this personal approach makes it that more accessible. It’s always honest.