'Brothers': Family Ties, Unraveling In Wartime

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Tobey Maguire and Natalie Portman in 'Brothers'

"Talk To Me": Communication doesn't come easy when a traumatized Marine (Tobey Maguire) returns home to the wife (Natalie Portman) and family who'd given him up for dead. Lorey Sebastian/Lionsgate hide caption

itoggle caption Lorey Sebastian/Lionsgate

Brothers

  • Director: Jim Sheridan
  • Genre: Drama
  • Running Time: 110 minutes

Rated R: Language, disturbing violent content

With: Tobey Maguire, Jake Gyllenhaal, Natalie Portman and Sam Shepard

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In Brothers, a remake of a 2004 film by the Danish director Susanne Bier, Tobey Maguire and Jake Gyllenhaal are Sam and Tommy Cahill. Sam is a Marine captain — lean, disciplined, responsible. When the movie starts, he's about to be redeployed to Afghanistan to be with his men — that's what he always says, "my men." Tommy is his opposite: grizzled, shambling, a drinker. He just got out of prison after three years for armed robbery.

The movie is called Brothers, but the center, the fulcrum, is the whole Cahill clan. Natalie Portman is Sam's wife, Grace, an ex-cheerleader. She can barely stand the sight of Tommy. The extended family features Sam Shepard as the brothers' alcoholic retired-Marine dad, who's not any fonder of his black-sheep son; Mare Winningham as their patient stepmother; and, as Sam's young daughters, Bailee Madison and Taylor Geare, who compete for attention and react to deadbeat Tommy in different ways.

When, early on, Sam's chopper goes down in Afghanistan and word comes back that he's dead, the family structure collapses — predictably. What isn't so predictable is how Tommy will react and move in to fill the gap. You certainly can't guess it from how he takes the news, when Grace catches him drunk in the middle of the night, returning the keys to his brother's truck: He lashes out, blaming Grace for letting Sam return to Afghanistan to get killed.

It's not a spoiler to say that top-billed Tobey Maguire does not, in fact, die in the first 15 minutes. But for much of Brothers, he's thought by his family to be dead. Director Jim Sheridan skips among the three protagonists — Sam in Afghanistan, Tommy and Grace back home — but he never loses the story's pulse. That's because the story isn't Sam or Tommy or Grace individually, but the family unit. It's how Sam's actions when he's captured relate to how his dad raised him and what he owes Grace; it's how Tommy's assumption of responsibility comes partly because Grace is so pretty and her older daughter so needy, and partly to prove something to his dad that he couldn't when Sam was alive.

Tobey Maguire and Jake Gyllenhaal in 'Brothers' i

Cold Comfort: Sam's black-sheep brother (Jake Gyllenhaal, right, with Maguire) steps up in his absence, but after his brother's return, he's in an impossible position. Lorey Sebastian/Lionsgate hide caption

itoggle caption Lorey Sebastian/Lionsgate
Tobey Maguire and Jake Gyllenhaal in 'Brothers'

Cold Comfort: Sam's black-sheep brother (Jake Gyllenhaal, right, with Maguire) steps up in his absence, but after his brother's return, he's in an impossible position.

Lorey Sebastian/Lionsgate

Who'd have guessed that stars who made their names as nerd heroes Peter Parker and Donnie Darko could be so credibly messed up and volatile? Maguire isn't big physically, but his tautness radiates power. Responsibility is his mantra. When he's thrown in a pit with one of his men, he coldly orders the soldier to forget his family, forget everything but his name. But as we jump back to Sam's wife and daughters, we wonder: Can he really forget his own?

From his two other leads, Sheridan has gotten the best performances of their lives. Gyllenhaal's Tommy turns out to be as tightly wound as his brother, only too scared to focus. He looks pitifully vulnerable as he begins to take on his brother's role. Portman has the kind of part that turns actresses into dullards: the wife who looks stricken while her man rages. But she's so grounded, so in the moment, that as others carry on, your eyes keep drifting to her.

Sheridan pulls you in so deep so fast, there isn't time for the alarm to go off that says: "Warning! Another Traumatized Vet Movie!" Brothers is that, ultimately, but it doesn't stop dead for Maguire to emote. The crosscurrents keep you scanning the frame — to watch the subtly vibrating face of Shepard, who has never been better, or the two wonderful girls. (Up-and-coming English actress Carey Mulligan has a small role, and I liked her better than in her showier turn in the film An Education, where she has to exaggerate her character's naïveté.)

Actors in Sheridan's movies are fully engaged, thinking hard in character, and you feel as if you're inside their heads. For this great director, empathy seems to come as naturally as breathing.

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