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Movie Review

Brothers

Mounting tension, battlefront to home front

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By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / December 4, 2009

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It would be nice to report that “Brothers’’ is a film about how Shaq and Kobe made up by hugging out old beefs. It is, instead, the story of Sam Cahill (Tobey Maguire), his brother, Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal), and the terrible misunderstanding that almost ruins their family. The movie is in trouble long before they are. This is a corny tale, told with both generous helpings of deli-sliced cheese and a brief stretch of chilling tumultuousness.

Sam is a Marine captain bound for another deployment in Afghanistan. Not long before he leaves, he picks up Tommy on his first day out of prison. Sam is stern and serious, a professional soldier. He has a high, tight haircut, he loves his wife, Grace (Natalie Portman) and two small daughters (Bailee Madison and Taylor Geare), and might love serving his country even more. His father, Hank (Sam Shepard), was also a Marine. Tommy is the family flop. He drinks like his father but serves only himself.

With Sam overseas, the movie breaks in half, then falls apart. Sam’s helicopter is shot down, and he is presumed dead. The family holds a funeral, and his wife and girls begin to move on, with a sober and sobered Tommy subbing, unconvincingly, as a husbandly and fatherly surrogate. He gets some buddies to renovate his brother’s kitchen and provides Grace and the girls with a man around the house. Only barely is there a sexual spark. But that’s plenty to drive the mania of the movie’s second half.

As it happens, Sam is very much alive, a hostage of aggrieved, camcorder-wielding Afghan fighters. While he and a private (Patrick Flueger) are subjected to mind-bending terror in Afghanistan, we’re being tortured here at home. Every time, the film cuts from the devastated look on Maguire’s face to a scene of Gyllenhaal frolicking with the two girls or getting high with Portman, it’s like being splashed with frigid water.

“Brothers’’ is a remake of a 2004 Danish drama, directed and co-written by Susanne Bier and also about a soldier in Afghanistan and his ne’er-do-well brother. The movie was remarkable for its restraint, style, and seamless construction. It was narrative physics. The two brothers seemed tragically incapable of harmony. One’s ability to see the bright side forced the other into darkness.

This American version, written by David Benioff and directed by the Irishman Jim Sheridan, captures little of the original film’s psychological shading. Sam and Tommy aren’t on that crucial cosmic tether. What befalls them gets telegraphed to us. In the opening minutes, Sam gives an envelope addressed for Grace to a fellow Marine and says, “Hope you don’t have to deliver it.’’ Indeed, his letter stays buried in a drawer for full melodramatic effect.

With their giant eyes and lipless mouths, Gyllenhaal and Maguire could, indeed, be brothers. And a hollowed out and haunted Maguire plays his one disturbed note to perfection. He’s too good, in fact, since, when he explodes, he singes the rest of the movie.

The three Danish stars were older than their American counterparts and that difference turns out to be crucial. These lives are lived by real young people all over the country, but this cast seems too young to believably bear the stress. Plus, Maguire, Gyllenhaal, and Portman have become high-note actors. The lower emotional registers don’t seem to interest them. They’re not going for complete characters here. They’re going for scenes.

Sheridan is a one-note filmmaker, too. The torture passages here are of a piece with the political violence in his IRA films, “In the Name of the Father’’ and “The Boxer.’’ Such scenes are so effective that they make the other side of the movie unbearable. Thomas Newman’s jaunty score sounds like an entry in a James Taylor sound-alike contest, and it never stops. When it does, there are songs by Sheridan’s buddies U2.

Sheridan’s single note extends to the way he directs children: He can be violently cute. (His popular aggravation “In America’’ also featured two little girls.) That urge to film extreme cruelty and extreme innocence explains the film’s one good scene, set at a dinner table with the entire Cahill clan and a lady friend of Tommy’s. Sheridan manages an impossible balance of lightness and tension that culminates in Sam’s older daughter squeezing a balloon until it pops. Madison contorts the girl’s sweet nature until she eerily resembles her father. The scene is overdone, but it works.

By that point, “Brothers’’ has become just a juicy entertainment: See Sam go crazy. This is another movie about a fractured soldier and the posttraumatic stress of war. Yet there’s something distasteful in the way Sheridan relishes turning that trauma into a potboiler.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com. For more on movies, go to www.boston.com/movienation.

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BROTHERS

Directed by: Jim Sheridan

Written by: David Benioff, adapted from a screenplay by Susanne Bier and Anders Thomas Jensen

Starring: Tobey Maguire, Jake Gyllenhaal, Natalie Portman, Bailee Madison, Taylor Geare, and Sam Shepard

At: Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs

Running time: 110 minutes

Rated: R (language and some disturbing violent content)

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