If a hundred years of cinematic history have taught us anything about combat, it's that war is hell. Brothers is one of those movies that wants to make sure we understand how returning from that hell can be even more difficult that living in it.
Jim Sheridan's film, adapted from Susanne Bier's 2004 movie, tells a melodramatic tale we've seen many times before. Captain Sam Cahill (Tobey Maguire) has orders to ship out for yet another tour of duty in Afghanistan. But before he leaves his supportive wife, Grace (Natalie Portman), and his two elementary-school-age daughters, Sam picks up his black sheep brother, Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal), who has finished a prison stretch for robbing a bank. While overseas, Sam's aircraft gets shot down and he's thought dead. Back home, irresponsible Tommy gets his act together in order to be an anchor for Grace and the girls, and the two grow emotionally -- though not physically -- close. As the family finally begins to make peace with their grief, soldiers rescue POW Sam and he returns home.
Up to this point, Brothers is a serviceable, fairly low-key family drama. David Benioff's script hammers home the subtext -- there are lines of dialogue that practically scream out the movie's themes -- and because of this the characters sometimes feel more like symbols than real people. However, the hard-working cast and the sensitive direction help temper that flaw.
The antagonistic dynamic between heavy-drinking Vietnam vet father Hank (Sam Shepard) and Tommy gives the two actors some rich scenes to play out, and they do so with surprising understatement considering the weight of the drama. Gyllenhaal and Portman also score points by playing their slowly evolving relationship without movie-star glamour -- you don't long for them to kiss because they're so damn attractive, but because they've gone through so much together.
But it's when Sam returns, changed deeply by his brutal experiences, that Brothers sets itself apart. Maguire looks gaunt and haunted; he really does begin to resemble a ghost -- but a ghost who slowly becomes more and more capable of violent acts. As his guilt, fear, and stress mutate into neurotic jealousy of Tommy's relationship with Grace, the daughters would rather be around Uncle Tommy -- setting up a vicious cycle that builds sickening emotional momentum.
When tensions finally explode at a birthday party for the oldest daughter, the realism is electrifying. As Sam's post-traumatic stress disorder eats away at him, Maguire brings to mind Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver -- and that's fitting, as Travis Bickle might be the best example of PTSD ever filmed. Sheridan forces us to watch Sam's raw pain, but -- with one glaring and problematic exception involving the cops -- he doesn't turn it into something operatic or grandiose.
This is the kind of movie that sticks with you, where you remember the great stuff and forgive the faults because the focus it brings to its difficult subject is unflinching and honest. If good art asks questions, Brothers is asking the right ones about the toll of war on human beings.