MOVIE REVIEW ★★ / 4 Out of the Mouths of Babes
No Ordinary Sibling Rivalry in ‘Brothers’
Directed by Jim Sheridan
Written by David Benioff
Starring Tobey Maguire, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Natalie Portman
I have to preface this review of Brothers, which is based on the Danish film Brødre, with a remark. I’m not a fan of musical manipulation in movies. Overly sappy instrumental music always struck me as unoriginal, as if the director wanted to cover up poor direction or poor acting.
Brothers, directed by Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot), tells the story of two brothers who couldn’t be any more different. Sam Cahill (Tobey Maguire) is a Marine captain, Afghanistan War veteran, and hometown hero (cue solo acoustic guitar evoking small town America). He is clean-shaven, cold, and calculating. Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal) is an ex-convict, a drunkard, and the black sheep of the Cahill family (cue rock music). He is resentful of the praise their father Hank (Sam Shepard) constantly gives Sam but chooses to do nothing about it. Sam is about to depart for Afghanistan for another tour of duty, leaving behind his wife Grace (Natalie Portman) and two daughters Isabelle and Maggie.
The rest of the film ensues thusly: Sam is killed in action. His family grieves. Tommy cleans up his act and takes on the father role, eventually winning over the daughters and Grace. The plot twist, of course, is that Sam wasn’t killed but captured by the Taliban (cue ethnic music). The experience breaks Sam down and is never the same even after he is rescued and returns home. Tension, emotional and sexual, ensues (cue dark music with orchestral strings).
Watching Gyllenhaal and Portman is one of few things that makes the film watchable. Their dynamics play off each other well, with Grace’s early dislike of the wayward brother to growing acceptance to unspoken sexual undertones. Grace is a fitting name for Portman’s character, who is poised and restrained with quiet emotional strength. Her portrayal of a grieving widow is not over the top, and it’s maybe even too restrained. Gyllenhaal does a convincing job of playing the outcast of the family. His roughness and irreverence is fun to watch, especially as he interacts with his ex-Marine father. Tommy’s increasing sense of responsibility is probably linked to his attraction towards Grace and genuine love for Isabelle and Maggie (cue upbeat 90s music). The sister sibling rivalry mirrors in some ways the brotherly rivalry; Isabelle asserts that Maggie receives more love than she does. That tension will extend throughout the film, ultimately to the emotional climax of Brothers. The girls are visibly disappointed in their father’s return since he is not as playful, understanding, or loving as Uncle Tommy.
The egregious weakness of the film, besides the uninspired dialogue, is the acting of Tobey Maguire. He really nails down the blank stare, and his only capable expressions are the stupid smirk he has constantly, wide-eyed anger, and that dull stare when he’s not doing the first two. Perhaps he was cast as a broken Marine due to these skills, but watching him act is almost as painful as being poked with a hot metal stake.
After his return, Sam is certain that Grace and Tommy have been sleeping together, which Grace denies flatly, while Tommy gives a less direct answer, saying that Sam’s crazy to think such a thing. This ambiguity suggests perhaps something more happened beyond the living room kiss Tommy and Grace shared in Sam’s absence. It’s curious that Sam withstood months of torture and food deprivation but cracks when he wonders about the hypothetical romance between his wife and brother. Of course, male sexual aggression is not a rational thing and can get the best of us (not speaking from experience of course).
Spoiler #1: Another interesting scene is one in which Grace finally reads Sam’s letter in the event of his death. She only reads it after Sam is arrested after he threatens to shoot Tommy outside Sam’s home. Reading the letter now, as opposed to when he was thought to be dead, signifies that he is emotionally dead, that he is essentially nonexistent in society because of his psychological degradation.
Spoiler #2: The emotional climax, and the motivation behind this review’s title, occurs at Maggie’s birthday dinner at Hank’s home. With all the Cahills present, including a blond whom Tommy had just met an hour prior, there is a juxtaposition between the blond’s assertion to Hank that no man is emotionally wired to kill (which is what Sam had to do to prevent his own execution) and Sam’s growing deranged annoyance at Isabelle’s bitter attempts to get attention. Isabelle crinkles one of Maggie’s balloons until Sam leaps over the table to pop it. She wails, screaming that the only reason why he’s mad is that Grace would rather have sex with Tommy than with him. A collective gasp echoed throughout the theater at that point. This assertion couldn’t be true, could it? If this were a surrealist indie film, perhaps, but nothing else in the film suggested it (save for Tommy’s weak response to Sam’s sex question). How would a nine year old know about sex anyway? Perhaps she speaks an untold truth. I like the uncertainty this statement presents, even if Grace later reprimands Isabelle for telling a lie.
The scenes from the trailer come from the last fifteen minutes of Brothers. The physical tension seen in the trailer adds to the emotional strain in most of the film. Although this apprehension is fairly cliché, it makes the film watchable. The best part of the film is watching the daughters, who steal the film with their humorous innocence and unpredictable antics.