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USA 2009
Directed by
Jim Sheridan
104 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 stars

Brothers (2009)

Synopsis: When US Marine Captain Sam Cahill (Tobey Maguire) goes missing in Afghanistan and is presumed dead, his ex-con younger brother (Jake Gyllenhaal) undertakes to look after the grieving widow (Natalie Portman) and her two children.

Content-wise Brothers could be considered as a companion piece to Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, both movies dealing with the effect combat on returning soldiers. Based on the 2004 Danish version, Brødre directed by Susanne Bier) however this US remake was directed by Jim Sheridan an Irish director who has notched up some hard-hitting films, notably The Boxer (1997) and In The Name Of The Father (1993) both dealing with “The Troubles”. In one respect this works in the film's favour with, wisely enough, given its strength Sheridan sticking close to the original version dramatically.  However his skill in dressing it in the American manner tends to stifle the film which, for the most part, looks like a typically American, Stars and Stripes-saluting, Bud-drinking heartland movie about family values and helping each other and throwing snowballs and stuff like that. For my money there was too much of this as the film burbled along, contrasting the deprivations of war in Afghanistan with the homespun joys of Mid-Western suburbia. Although Bier used the same strategy her actual choices weren't so familiar and this allowed the narrative, despite feeling quite American, to unfold more "authentically".

Natalie Portman, like Connie Nielsen in the original, is improbably good-looking for an Army wife although David Benioff's script makes an attempt to justify this but Tobey Maguire, with his boyish looks and high-pitched voice does not seem a whole lot more plausible as a Marine Captain and father of two. He appears to have lost considerable weight for the post-Afghanistan part of the film and looks suitably harrowed but he tends to overdo the staring eyes when in the grip of paranoid delusion. Jake Gyllenhaal on the other hand is a much better fit as a charming black sheep whilst Shepard as the gruff Vietnam vet is just right in the kind of small role which is his stock-in-trade these days. Kudos must go to 10 year old Bailee Madison who gives a remarkable performance as Sam’s eldest daughter.

For a good part of its running time Brothers is unremarkable as it methodically lays out the two wings of its narrative. In its latter stages when the two halves come together, however, the film, just as it did in Bier's version, really ramps up the intensity. Whereas Kathryn Bigelow concentrated almost entirely on action in her film and proffered no explanation of her protagonist’s motivations, Brothers, with a good deal of credibility, explores the psychological effect of war’s horror and how it can engender a pathology in its practitioners. In The Hurt Locker, Staff Sergeant William James briefly returns to his home, one very much like that of Capt. Cahill, before deciding to return to the war zone. Sheridan’s film resolves itself more reassuringly, the ending, unsurprisingly given its US origins unlike the Danish version, spelling out a solution although given the nature of the trauma involved, not in a way that feels particularly effective.

Adhering to the if-it-ain't-broke principle, the ending aside, Sheridan has largely confined himself to tightening up the plotting of the original.  With the benefit of hindsight his is the more polished version but arguably too much so.

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