It sounds like an odd thing to say, but the war in Afghanistan is now the longest war in American history – headed into its eight year – and with even more troops headed over in the next two years, it’s remarkable how absent this battle has been from our consciousness, and our popular culture. Sure, it makes a great backdrop for a mindless summer blockbuster like Transformers. But unlike Viet Nam, say, the war has had very little effect on either our counter-culture or our consciousness.
Brothers may seem like the less obvious choice to intro with a paean to American sentimentality or supporting our troops. And it’s true that this drama mostly takes place in the safe, middle-class suburban landscape of the some unidentified western burg (with only about thirty minutes of B footage of Sam Cahill, played by Toby Maguire, serving his rotation through the Taliban-infested mountains of Afghanistan, scattered throughout). But it’s the psychological effect of this war on both the troops and the families at home which this movie wishes to deeply investigate: and that effect, in the end, is one that this movie clearly takes on by focusing both on the ordinary-seeming dynamics Twenty-First Century American middle-class psychology in confrontation with the stark moral choices poised by a serious war of cultures.
Which is to say, Brothers is a movie that sneaks up on you – that at first seems like a fairly by-the-book family drama about two brothers (Sam, the good older brother, who joins the army and does his duty, and Tommy, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, as the opposite: the rascally younger brother, who’s been in jail for assault and robbery and has no respect for his life) – yet it reveals itself, with a somewhat sudden intensity, to be really something else entirely, a movie about how a veteran survives the ravages of a war that our society seems barely prepared to confront.
The set up to the movie in fact almost seems too pat. Sam is a very good brother, wound tight and burdened with high expectations, as well as a family that depends on him, misses him, and has little understanding for what obligates him to return to the war time after time. Tommy is the very bad brother, who snarls at their father, leers at Sam’s lovely wife Grace (played by a suddenly mature Natalie Portman), and generally skulks around, being sultry, sexy and powerful yet not much help to anyone as his brother leaves his family yet one more time. We can see where this set-up is going, and for a good hour, it pretty much does: Sam is tested under fire, and this good brother is headed for a crack-up, while his counterpart at home (his dobbleganger, one might say) begins to clean up his act – headed in the opposite trajectory – and becoming more attractive to Grace, Sam’s loyal but clearly sensual wife.
Jim Sheridan directs these three (along with Sam Shephard, as the father) with a kind of actor’s studio quality – which gets some fine acting and performances from the ensemble, yet also at times feels a bit too informal, as if the crew were about to break character and needed to try another take. In a way, this style forces you a bit out of the story and into the subtleties of the acting, so the informality to the direction may be intentional, even if it seems slightly sloppy at time. In the end, however, Sheridan coaxes some absorbing performances from Maguire and Gyllenhaal. Both are quite remarkable, their performances almost riding above the surface of the film. While we’ve seen such stand-out performance from Gyllenhaal before (his work in Brokeback Mountain was perhaps unfairly eclipsed by Heath Ledger), this is the first real standout acting I’ve seen from Maguire, catapulting him past his Spiderman boyishness and into the realm of truly interesting leading men. Actually, one of the most enjoyable things about this movie is seeing three iconic child actors finally take the stage as our new leading adult thespians (which is no doubt part of the logic in Portman’s decision to produce the movie).
However, about two-thirds into the film, the movie makes a most daring move: it doesn’t just tweak Sam’s wound up nature, it shatters it completely, when Sam, under the pressure of captivity, makes a single decision that will change his life forever. This break is a courageous thing to do in any story – because afterwards, there are so many dangerous shards that need to be picked up for the story to work. Brothers goes through the heavy lifting of picking up those shards, and in the process, becomes much more of a movie than it seemed to be setting out to be.
When Sam returns home, there are so many ways in which this movie could veer into cliché, yet Brothers steers clear of all of them. What we end up getting are a series of about six amazing scenes, including a dinner scene when Sam’s elder daughter, clearly feeling out her own psychological dark depths, says just the precise thing to precipitate the danger that Sam now poses to his family.
All of this is observed with remarkable insight. The well acted setup that has come before is nothing compared to the explosive denouement that awaits, and in the end, we realize that what has been haunting this entire family for generations are the truths of war too terrible to be uttered. Brothers finally utters those truths…and even if you’ve let thoughts of our eight-year war glide past in the background, or buried on some distant news channel, I challenge you to forget this movie easily.