12/14/09

Review: Brothers (2009)


I was not optimistic about Brothers. The preview is an unmitigated disaster, which both gives away too much and just makes the film look bad, trite, silly. So I was surprised to find the film itself to be a rather restrained and largely effective melodrama, not overdone or pandering, but a solid family story with sympathetic characters in a heck of a situation.

Tobey Maguire plays a Marine, Captain Sam Cahill, with a wife, Grace (Natalie Portman) who was his high school sweetheart, two daughters, and a brother, Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal), just out of prison, when Sam ships off to Afghanistan.

Despite the obvious alcoholism of Sam and Tommy's father (Sam Shepard, very good), the Cahills are portrayed as a tight-knit family who spend time together and love one another, though tensions work beneath the surface. We never know why Tommy was in prison, but we do see an unfolding of events which makes all of the family relationships work out satisfyingly.

Mare Winningham is particularly good as the brothers' stepmother, who has the unenviable task of loving and mediating between three strong men who seem capable of violence and recriminations in their interactions with each other and the world. As in her Oscar-nominated effort in the wonderful Georgia, she has a way here of radiating a wise and practical femininity and stability which is intriguing and complicated.

Natalie Portman is also remarkable as Grace, a character as strong as, but more vulnerable than Winningham's. When Sam disappears after a skirmish in Afghanistan, and is presumed dead, Grace is eloquent in her grief and determined to stay present for her daughters and move on with her life, which increasingly includes Tommy, a welcome and growing if loserish source of strength and continuity for herself and her children.

The non-spoiler twist, of course, is that Sam is not dead. Instead, he has been taken captive by Taliban or al Qaeda forces who videotape the brutal interrogation and torture of Sam's fellow captive, and inflict psychological torture upon Sam through starvation, isolation and other means. Sam returns brutalized and at times brutal himself, detached from his family life, disturbed and paranoid (and not without some cause).

The denouement of Sam's return and the sort-of love triangle which has developed among Sam, Grace and Tommy strongly flirts with the most negative connotations of melodrama, but some restraint in the storytelling and good acting, and a resistance to play it too easy win out in the end, providing a realistic touch.

Maguire and Gyllenhaal are both all right, and there's some believable affection between their Sam and Tommy, and interesting relationships between the brothers and Grace, and the brothers and their father and stepmother. I never believed for a second that Gyllenhaal had been in prison, however, nor that Maguire was a military leader. Neither quite displayed the character notes that would have sold these histories, there are textures missing which might have sold them. However, there was a nice interplay of these backstories with the repressed violence of the situation which develops between them, which the two actors do get pretty much right.

A fairly persuasive and moving story of love, violence, persistence and struggle against difficult odds, without easy answers, Brothers is worth seeing. It's not perfect or great, but it is good.

Alex
The Magic of the Movies

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