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Brothers: Sibling drama tries too hard, too early

Tobey Maguire (as Sam Cahill) and Natalie Portman (as Grace Cahill) star in Brothers.

2 out of 4 stars



  • Directed by Jim Sheridan
  • Written by David Benioff
  • Starring Tobey Maguire, Natalie Portman and Jake Gyllenhaal
  • Classification: 14A

Jim Sheridan's Brothers , a remake of a film made by Danish director Susanne Bier in 2004, is an almost-good movie weakened by its desire to have a major impact, as melodramatic material is heated to boiling over. Built around an intense performance by Tobey Maguire as a emotionally damaged war vet, Sheridan's film sets itself up, if not exactly as this generation's answer to Coming Home or TheDeer Hunter , as at least late-season Oscar bait.

Maguire plays Sam Cahill, a Marine captain and a former star athlete now married to the pretty cheerleader, Grace (Natalie Portman). They live in small-town New Mexico with their two adoring young daughters. Sam's the favoured son of his Vietnam vet father (Sam Shepard) and doting mom (Mare Winningham). There are a couple of sore spots. Dad is an alcoholic. The other son, Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal), is also a heavy drinker and family embarrassment, who we see getting out of jail for bank robbery as the film starts.

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Directed by Jim Sheridan, Brothers stars Jake Gyllenhaal, Natalie Portman and Tobey Maguire.

Shortly after, Sam ships out for his fourth tour of duty in Afghanistan, but he has barely arrived when his helicopter is shot down and he is presumed dead. Unexpectedly, Tommy responds to the crisis by becoming a better man. He helps Grace, who previously disliked and distrusted him, to remodel her kitchen with the help of some of his rough friends. He bonds with and comforts her daughters, the cute-as-a-button favourite, Maggie (Taylor Geare), and the insecure, older sibling, Isabelle (Bailee Madison), whose sibling dynamic parallels the two brothers. Grace grows to love, in some sense, the reformed Tommy, and even his father comes to see some merit in his son.

As it turns out, Sam is not dead, but has been captured and is being held by the Taliban in an underground pit, along with another soldier, Private Joe Willis (Patrick Flueger). Eventually he's rescued, but he's psychologically broken in the process, and comes home riddled with anger and guilt. He's impatient with his daughters and consumed by a growing jealousy regarding his wife and brother.

Sheridan ( My Left Foot, In the Name of the Father, In America ) is known as an actor's director, and he pushes the cast here to move beyond their familiar safe zones. Portman, as a young woman reacting to one crisis, and then another, has rarely been as mature and empathetic. Gyllenhaal is completely persuasive as a guy who slides into his black-sheep role as confirmation of his lack of self-worth. Later, he blossoms when he's allowed to step out from under his accomplished brother's shadow. Solid support is offered from Shepard's bitter, but not cruel, father, with the effortlessly authentic Winningham as his tolerant wife. Sheridan, who directed children so well in 2002's In America , also gets unusually resonant performances from the child actors, especially Madison.

Maguire, despite looking too boyish for the athlete/soldier he plays (the Danish actor who played the same part was in his 40s), has powerful moments of ravaged emotional rawness. But then his performance tips into the grotesque: Think Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle, and maybe some Jake LaMotta thrown in. By the time we reach the explosion point, we've already had too many glances at the sizzling fuse - the crooked, distracted smiles, fixed gazes and puppet-like movements - to be shocked.

There's another reason why Brothers doesn't peak convincingly: It tries too hard too early. Though the adaptation by David Benioff ( The Kite Runner ) is essentially faithful to the original script (by Bier and fellow filmmaker Anders Thomas Jensen), the direction and buildup of the story is entirely different.

In the Danish version of the film, shot in the Dogma style, hand-held cameras catch reality on the fly; there was something both harrowing but matter-of-fact about the family turmoil that unfolded. Sheridan's film starts ratcheting up the tension early, crosscutting busily between Afghanistan and the home front, but the Afghanistan sequences are among the weakest in the film. (The Taliban soldiers are a bunch of yelling men in turbans and beards, except, of course, for the sole bespectacled scholar fanatic, who's the resident sadist.)

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The effect is to put us on our guard against manipulation: the attractive stars doing award-baiting performances, the mournful guitar score, right on through to the "cue the U2 redemptive song" at the conclusion. In this case, a softer touch would hit harder.

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About the Author
Film critic

Liam Lacey is a film critic for The Globe and Mail. More

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