'Brothers' walks the minefield of war, family drama

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 4, 2009

With a running time of slightly less than two hours, "Brothers" isn't an especially lengthy film. But it does take half the movie before the story -- about the relationship between a straight-arrow Marine serving in Afghanistan and his ne'er-do-well, ex-con brother back home -- really kicks in. When it does, it'll knock the air out of you.

The first part is all meticulous setup, but not a minute is ill spent.

In 2007, Capt. Sam Cahill (Tobey Maguire) leaves behind his beautiful wife, Grace (Natalie Portman), and two adorable daughters (heartbreakers Bailee Madison and Taylor Geare) to fight the Taliban. Early in the film, Sam's helicopter is shot down in the mountains, and he's presumed dead, leaving Grace and the girls to seek solace with Sam's younger brother Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal), an ice-blue-eyed charmer who's fresh out of prison for bank robbery, but who redeems himself with his sister-in-law -- who never liked him -- by slowly discovering a responsible side.

Meanwhile, back in Afghanistan, Sam isn't actually dead, just being tortured in a remote Taliban outpost. When he's finally rescued and returns home months later, a gaunt, catatonic version of his former self, it's to a family he no longer recognizes, and that no longer recognizes him.

This is where the real movie begins. Or rather, it begins just before Sam's return, when something bad -- something real bad -- happens to Sam in Afghanistan. Something that turns him into the kind of monster that only war can create, and might leave you wondering if he wouldn't be better off dead. Sam certainly wonders that.

"Brothers" is the story of that monster, and his struggle to find his humanity.

Is it a movie you'll enjoy? Not enjoy, so much as appreciate. Or maybe recognize. Adapted by writer David Benioff and director Jim Sheridan from a 2004 Danish film of the same name, "Brothers" is depressing as hell. And, like most war movies these days, it ends on a note that's far from hopeful. But it's good, and wise, and it feels true. Meaning, it hurts.

In the roles of Sam and Tommy, Maguire and Gyllenhaal have their work cut out for them. In a sense, their characters have to trade places: Sam, moving from golden boy to paranoid, antisocial beast who carries a gun in the kitchen and who accuses his brother of having an affair with Grace; and Tommy, moving from shiftless, drunken lout to husband material. If I were casting the movie, I'd have picked actors with slightly less natural sweetness, which undermines each character's dark side. Still, both manage to carry off difficult transitions -- trajectories that start from opposite poles, but intersect somewhere in the middle -- with wrenching believability.

The title "Brothers" suggests that the movie is purely a family drama, one that's exclusively concerned with the reconciliation between estranged, differently damaged sons. Sam Shepard, by the way, turns in a fine performance as Sam and Tommy's emotionally distant, Vietnam-veteran father. And Mare Winningham is equally good as his stolid second wife. But "brothers" has another meaning, calling to mind not just the plight of siblings, but of brothers-in-arms.

That's the subtext of "Brothers," which uses the fallout from Sam's actions in Afghanistan to explore how he -- and, by extension, we -- have injured ourselves through fighting wars.

Though the term post-traumatic stress disorder is never mentioned, the film is one harrowing case study in PTSD, with a long, lingering emphasis on the P. As Sam notes, in voice-over, at the film's bleak and wrenching conclusion, "only the dead have seen the end of war."

*** R. At area theaters. Contains obscenity, drug use and scenes of violence and torture. 110 minutes.

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