With Tobey Maguire, Natalie Portman, Jake Gyllenhaal. Rated R for language and some disturbing violent content. 110 minutes
Based on the 2004 Danish film, BROTHERS is a powerful if overlong melodrama featuring an intense performance by Tobey Maguire, who will make you forget about “Spider-Man.” If at times it seems too schematic, the film’s rewards outweigh its flaws. The political overtones of the story – the war in Afghanistan plays a major role – is strictly beside the point. The focus here is on the people.
Sam (Maguire) is the “good” brother, a career Marine officer who is about to be shipped back to Afghanistan. Shortly before he leaves his brother Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal) is released from prison for having stuck up a bank. Sam’s wife Grace (Natalie Portman) isn’t thrilled by either prospect, but makes the best of it, even though the boys’ father (Sam Shepherd) makes it very clear which son he favors.
The contrivance of the plot is that Sam’s helicopter is shot down but he survives as a prisoner held by an unidentified group of Afghanis. While everyone back home believes him dead, we see the hell he is being put through. It’s only a matter of time before Sam returns home, and that’s where the real drama of the story takes place.
What the movie is really about is about is how bad brother Tommy starts to step up to adult responsibility when he believes Sam is dead, while Sam is so changed by his experience that his wife and two little girls grow fearful of him. The two brothers have exchanged their traditional roles. Jim Sheridan, whose films include “In America,” has a gift for directing children, and the scenes of Tommy bonding with his two nieces are the key to seeing how he has changed. Always put down by his father, who suffered his own traumas in Vietnam, Tommy finally has a reason to act responsibly. If it creates some romantic vibes between himself and his sister-in-law, who believes herself to be a widow, that only adds to the complications.
The problem is that the film takes a long time to get to the heart of the matter, which is how Sam returns a psychological wreck but remains unable to tell anyone why he is spinning out of control. It’s a difficult part and it’s what makes Maguire’s work so impressive. There are scenes where he conveys more with a glare or with a false smile that says more than pages of dialogue. The metaphor of a ticking time bomb is apt. It’s only a matter of time before he loses it, and the tension comes from wondering who will pay the price.
Gyllenhaal and Portman offer solid performances, but it is Maguire’s turn as the “good” son who now sees himself as beyond redemption that you will remember. “Brothers” may not be one of the best films of the year, but Maguire’s performance makes this a film not to miss.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being I’ll Have What She’s Having: Behind The Scenes Of The Great Romantic Comedies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Brookline.