Brothers is filled with good performances and tense, captivating moments, and one long scene — an awkward family dinner that gradually builds in tension until you’re squirming in your seat — is a knockout. So why does the movie barely register? In remaking Susanne Bier’s Danish-language drama from 2005, director Jim Sheridan (In America, The Boxer) and screenwriter David Benioff (The 25th Hour) pay careful attention to the tiniest details, but they miss the larger picture; they don’t look far enough down the field. Brothers is a collection of strong moments that don’t add up to anything. The movie is all build-up.
The limp third act is particularly disappointing, because so much of Brothers has the lean, focused feel of a movie heading toward a destination presumably far from the obvious. In a few quick scenes, Sheridan sketches the complex dynamics of the Cahill family, led by Sam (Tobey Maguire), a Marine preparing to return to Afghanistan for his fourth tour; his wife Grace (Natalie Portman), who dotes on their two daughters and has learned to live with her husband’s dangerous profession; his black-sheep brother Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal), who is just out of prison after serving time for bank robbery, and the men’s father Hank (Sam Shepard), who makes no secret about which son is his favorite.
The first half of Brothers focuses on how the Cahills react after Sam is reportedly killed in action, and Tommy, intending to look after his brother’s family, winds up falling in love with his sister-in-law. The premise is pure soap opera, but the performances draw you in (the scene in which Gyllenhaal and Portman tentatively kiss during a late-night session of beers and U2 and are immediately overcome by guilt and shame, is one of the film’s best).
Except Sam is not dead: Brothers shows us the horrific ordeal he endures during a year of captivity by the Taliban while, back home, his family mourns him. But the constant cutaways to Afghanistan undermine the movie. You’re left waiting for the story to get to the point, which is Sam’s sudden reappearance, and we should have been just as surprised as everyone else when he turns up alive.
Maguire is good in the role of the shell-shocked veteran whose wide, haunted eyes don’t begin to hint at the size of the demons raging within. But Brothers does surprisingly little with the scenario that has been so laboriously constructed: Aside from the dinner scene, in which Sam’s older daughter (an excellent Bailee Madison) lashes out at the strange, haunted man her father has become, the anti-climactic Brothers squanders its potential. If you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve seen the movie.
Cast: Tobey Maguire, Jake Gyllenhaal, Natalie Portman, Sam Shepard, Bailee Madison, Taylor Geare, Patrick Flueger, Mare Winningham, Clifton Collins Jr., Carey Mulligan.
Director: Jim Sheridan.
Screenwriter: David Benioff.
Producers: Ryan Kavanaugh, Sigurjon Sighvatsson, Michael De Luca.
A Lionsgate release. Running time: 104 minutes. Vulgar language, brief violence, adult themes. Playing at area theaters.