Director: Jim Sheridan
Starring: Toby Maguire, Natalie Portman, Jake Gyllenhaal
It has been said that you can never go home again. If this adage is true about simply growing up and becoming an adult, it must be doubly so about going away and returning from war. Brothers tackles this tricky and emotionally fraught subject from two perspectives: the soldier who returns and the family he returns to. It is an often harrowing film with a trio of fine performances that make it more than worth checking out.
The brothers of the title are Sam (Toby Maguire) and Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal). Sam is the golden boy, the one who has always done right and is about to leave for a tour in Afghanistan, and Tommy is the perpetual screw up who has just been released from prison. Things are tense between Tommy and the rest of his family - he and his father (Sam Shepard) have always butted heads and the old tension is still very much there; and Sam's wife Grace (Natalie Portman) has never cared for him - but after Sam is reported dead overseas, Tommy steps up to help Grace, whether she likes it or not.
Tommy's not perfect but he tries hard and develops a nice rapport with Sam and Grace's two girls, Isabelle (Bailee Maddison) and Maggie (Taylor Geare). As they deal with Sam's death, Tommy and Grace grow closer, perhaps a little too close, and then have to pull back completely when they learn that Sam is not dead after all. Returning home Sam fixates on the tension he picks up on between Tommy and Grace in order to avoid having to deal with his experiences as a prisoner of war, which have left him traumatized. Avoidance, however, only gives his emotions time to build and when he finally reaches the breaking point, it threatens to tear the entire family apart permanently.
The story intercuts between scenes of Sam's experiences as a prisoner and scenes of the family back home trying to carry on in his absence. The juxtaposition is effective for the most part and sets up the shift in relationships that will occur when Sam finally gets back home. Though Tommy steps back - partly because Sam directly questions him about his relationship with Grace - Sam remains an outsider. His children are withdrawn from him, afraid of his moods and longing for the return of their uncle, and Grace, despite her efforts, simply can't understand him. His father, a war veteran himself, could understand him but, like Sam, he's reluctant to talk. Though the film is far less overtly political than its subject matter might suggest, it is an indictment of the macho, no emotions allowed, sensibility that in many ways defines popular ideas about the military and the people in it.
The three leads all deliver good performances that provide the film with a nice, lived in feeling. This is perhaps the most mature performance of Maguire's career so far and he manages to remain focused even when the story begins to veer into the cliched "crazy veteran" area. Portman renders a much quieter performance, playing a woman who is inwardly collapsing from grief but outwardly trying to keep it together for the sake of her children - it's a performance built more on what she doesn't do than what she does do, which can often be tricky. The real standout, however, is Gyllenhaal, who tells half of Tommy's story simply through body language. This is definitely an actors' showcase and it's surprising that outside of Maguire's Golden Globe nomination and Portman's nomination from the Chicago Film Critics, the performances weren't more widely embraced.
If the film has a flaw, it's ultimately to do with its treatment of the relationship between Grace and Tommy. There isn't really much heat between Gyllenhaal and Portman - Sam remarks at one point that they look at each other like two teenagers in love, and while I can see that coming from Tommy's side, I didn't get that from Grace - and the relationship itself is a bit too ambiguous and muted. The film works in spite of this but better chemistry would have gone a long way.