Nicolas Winding Refn movies and you've pretty much caught yourself up on their last 20 years of international impact. Ooh...are you just going to take that sick burn, Denmark? Probably. Anyway, when movies cite The Odyssey as an influence, it usually just means that a husband has been away and returns to a wife that may or may not have moved on without him. To give you an idea of how different Odyssey-based films can be, O Brother Where Art Thou? and Cold Mountain both claim it as a source of inspiration. So how will Brothers handle this age-old plot structure?
Shortly after his nogoodnick brother, Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal), is released from prison, US Marine captain Sam Cahill (Tobey Maguire) is set to leave for yet another tour of duty in Afghanistan. Sam is a loving husband to Grace (Natalie Portman) and father to his two daughters, Isabelle (Bailee Madison) and Maggie (Taylor Geare). Tommy is having trouble adjusting to life outside of prison, spending his time drinking and arguing with his father (Sam Shepard). Shortly after being deployed, Sam's helicopter is shot down, leaving only him and one other solider (Patrick Fleuger) alive; they are "lucky" enough to be taken prisoner in a remote Afghan village. After weeks and even months of being starved and tortured, Sam is rescued by incoming US soldiers; his helicopter-mate did not survive.
Meanwhile, Tommy had finally decided to stop being a bum and remodeled Sam and Grace's kitchen and had become a constant help with Isabelle and Maggie. When Sam's "death" was announced, Tommy and Grace bonded over their mutual mourning over Sam. Their friendship deepens over the ensuing months, and Tommy takes on more of a fatherly role with the girls. When Sam returns home, everyone is ecstatic --- except Sam. He's still on edge after his months of trauma. He alienates his daughters (who don't understand his problems) and tries to get Grace and/or Tommy to confess to an affair. Well...he uses language a little coarser than that, but you get the picture. Time passes, but Sam isn't getting better; he's just one careless remark away from snapping. What kind of remark? How about Isabelle getting angry at the dinner table and shouting that Mommy and Uncle Tommy have sex all the time? Congratulations, kid, you're grounded for instigating homicide.
Before I go on about the acting in this film, let me state how nice it is to see Tobey Maguire in a drama again. I know, he made two in between Spider-Man movies, but Spidey 3 was so bad that I almost forgot why I liked him in the first place. He's really, really good in dramatic roles. And he handled not only a high-strung and dangerous character here, but an impressive physical transformation into an emaciated wreck. It would have been even better if Sam actually had a personality before he left for his tour of duty, but this was some impressive acting anyway. Jake Gyllenhaal was also good, but he definitely had the easier role; all he has to do is act reasonable, and he's doing his job. Similarly, Natalie Portman did what was asked of her, but her character didn't have a whole lot of depth; Portman did a great job handling the variety of emotions that her part demanded, but you don't really learn much about any of these characters enough to truly like or feel sorry for them. The supporting cast is solid, but they don't offer a whole lot that is interesting. The kids were pretty good (for child actors), Sam Shepard can still play a hard-ass, and Ethan Suplee is still a bumbling but lovable friend character.
Jim Sheridan's direction is pretty okay. I thought there was a pacing issue in the film, but more on that later. I thought all the actors were handled well, and Sheridan captured a lot of small moments effectively. This movie is definitely carried by the performances of its stars, but I honestly felt that --- good as they were --- Gyllenhaal and Portman could have been better. That's kind of an elitist gripe, I realize, but they've both played more well-rounded characters with more depth before, and this was a stellar opportunity for the director to get a smorgasbord of great acting. It was an opportunity that was considered, but ultimately not seized.
At its core, Brothers is little more than a Lifetime movie of the week with some superior acting. It's a pretty melodramatic story and the plot hits all the typical beats. The problem with this movie is, unfortunately, the story itself. The camera shows all the important things that happen during Sam's "death." What messed Sam up in the head so much? Did Tommy and Grace sleep together? We already know, because we saw it happen (or not happen). Where's the drama? Where's the suspense? In the end, when Sam finally tells someone else what scarred him so badly in Afghanistan, I was left indifferent because it wasn't a bombshell for me any more. It would have been nice to see things through Sam's eyes when he got home, or at least shown his suspicions of Grace and Tommy growing over time. Instead, whenever he got one of them alone, he started grilling them. That made the post-Afghanistan part of the film feel very condensed, which in turn made the pacing of the whole film a little lopsided.
Here's what I would have done to make this film better. I would have shown everything up until Sam being declared dead and then skipped forward however many weeks or months. I would have shown Sam's Afghanistan experience mostly in flashback and the same for Tommy and Grace's relationship, leaving the ultimate answers to the film for the very end. As it is, not edited by me, the movie struggles to rise above mediocrity despite some good acting.