I was profoundly moved by Susanne Bier’s 2004 Danish film, “Brothers.” A troubling story of war and bereavement, the film touched me deeply through a range of exceptional performances and a special attention to unnerving matters of the heart and mind. Interest to remake the picture makes sense, considering the seismic dramatic drift of the material is practically catnip to all filmmakers and actors. Now “Brothers” has returned to the screen in a respectful remake, utilizing the change of scenery and bloom of star power to mine exceptional results. It might not contain Bier’s sympathetic sucker-punch filmmaking hold, but director Jim Sheridan comes close to matching her paralyzing emotional beats.
Preparing for his tour of duty in Afghanistan, Captain Sam Cahill (Tobey Maguire) is facing an extended period away from wife Grace (Natalie Portman) and his two young daughters. Needing Sam’s attention at the last minute is little brother Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal), freshly released from jail, without a plan for his life. When Sam leaves, Tommy tentatively steps in to take care of the family, facing the wrath of his judgmental father (Sam Shepard) and the warmth of Grace’s appreciation. When Sam is presumed dead after a helicopter attack, Grace is devastated, but encouraged to live again through Tommy’s support. Sam, now under terrorist control, is forced to endure torture and perform unspeakable acts of cruelty to survive, with family back home his only comfort.
2005’s 50 Cent bio-pic “Get Rich or Die Tryin’” aside (hey, we all have bills to pay), Jim Sheridan has proven himself time and again to be a lovely filmmaker (“My Left Foot,” “In America,” “In the Name of the Father”). Tuned in to the nuances of behavior and confident with emotional purges, Sheridan is a spot-on choice to bring “Brothers” back to the big screen. A delicate story of piercing psychological erosion, Sheridan doesn’t perform a massive facelift on Bier’s picture, instead cradling its war zone grit and tempestuous domestic conflicts with tremendous care, while allowing himself a few new avenues to explore with this unexpected cast.
The screenplay by David Benioff is compassionate and inquisitive, comfortable with the silent spaces of reflection, giving Sheridan leeway to observe characters in the throes of mourning and maturity. The situations are scripted with a certain passive-aggressive authenticity, exploring the estrangement of Tommy and his military family; the deadbeat returning to a home where his criminal record, neck tattoos, and laziness are viewed as a betrayal of potential, always at odds with his dismissive father (Shepard is uncharacteristically superlative here as the pained patriarch). “Brothers” isn’t Tommy’s story, but he acts as our guide into the headspace of the Cahills, who serve without question, trusting in the purity of home as their reward.
“Brothers” eventually breaks off into two stories, following Tommy and Sam as they steel themselves to welcome wildly opposing challenges of endurance. Coming to terms with Sam’s death, Tommy and Grace somberly carry on to form something of a new family unit, with two knowing children (Sheridan’s exceptional eye for casting kids continues with Bailee Madison and Taylor Geare) enjoying moments with a wayward uncle who has nothing but time to offer them. Through Gyllenhaal and Portman’s substantial work, the pull between Grace and Tommy is organically felt -- a cautious game of faint flirtation that results in a romantic act that shames them both deeply, yet underlines an attraction that’s naturally developed with Sam pulled out of the picture. The eggshells are navigated beautifully by the cast, creating intimacy that helps the film to natural emotional releases and, in the case of the children, gut-wrenching questions of loss.
Sam’s POW story is a living nightmare, following the marine as he’s forced to maintain exceptional emotional control up against enemies who torture him and a subordinate for military secrets, ultimately shattering Sam’s mind with an act of indescribable brutality. Sheridan summons the buildup of anguish with convincing terror, capturing Sam as he winds down a path of defiance to the bitter end, looking to Grace and the kids as his reason to live. Maguire leans into the gut-wrenching shock of it all, illustrating the decimation of Sam as a solidification of heart and mind, losing himself to the world as his willing military duty takes him to the extremes of conflict and Middle Eastern barbarism, effectively stealing his humanity.
How Sam survives his imprisonment and copes with his eventual shell-shocked reintroduction to family life feeds the film’s second half. It’s a commentary on war and jealousy that further infests Sam, who can’t stand the imperfections of his life now that he’s come back to a sense of calm. Admittedly, Sheridan rushes through the finishing moves faster than Bier, but his demonic hold on Sam’s destructive fixation on Tommy and Grace’s flirtation is disturbing, leading to a few choice sequences of tragic mental breakdowns.
“Brothers” hits a mournful core, struggling with its characters to navigate unsettled pockets of the mind, appreciating the prickliness of family and the struggle of maturity. It’s a tremendous film, gently reworking its inspiration into a more open wound experience, with three superb lead performances capable of communicating the raw urges and sideswiping confusion of a life lived to the best of intentions.