For all its moments of high drama, “Brothers,” directed by Jim Sheridan, written by David Benioff, Susanne Bier, and Anders Thomas Jensen, is a wonderfully understated story of what happens when a soldier comes home.
Sure, some of the scenes are harrowing, if not horrific. The crash that landed Captain Sam Cahill (Tobey Maguire) into an Afghani POW camp (a hole in the ground) was a prelude to hell. As was the treatment he and Private Joe Willis (Patrick Flueger) received, not to mention what Sam thought he had to do to get home to see his wife, Grace (Natalie Portman), and two lovely daughters, Maggie (Taylor Geare) and Isabelle (Bailee Madison). The anguish that Grace and the kids endured because Sam was reported killed in action was heart wrenching, as was that of Sam’s brother, Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal).
All this served to effectively build up the climactic scene back home in that small town, in which Sam accuses (and almost acts upon) an alleged infidelity between Grace and Tommy.
And yet there’s nothing sensationalized about the movie. The most dramatic part of a dramatic movie was that feather of a kiss between Grace and Tommy. The film’s tone was honorable restraint. Sam is stalwart and calm; those are the qualities that his fellow Marine father Hank (Sam Shepard) admired in his son, the lack of which he despised in his never-do-well other son. Portman’s Grace’s grief when she thought that Sam was dead was measured, almost classical. And for but one incident in Afghanistan and one at home, Sam conducted himself as the good, steady Marine that he was.
That kiss was key. Grace and Tommy certainly despised each other, ever since high school when he was a troublemaker, she was a cheerleader. And for them to kiss, much less carry it any further, would have been understandable, given the circumstances. But then it would have been another kind of movie, one that played on effects and drama, and not one that nuanced the circumstances of a soldier/father/brother/son who had to make sense of having been to hell and back, all in the name of serving his country.
It’s a moving experience to witness the evolution of the brothers’ relationship. Their respective transformations in the course of the movie are extraordinary. At first, Sam is straight-laced, an achiever, a star high school athlete, willing to serve his country. Tommy was, is shiftless; he frittered his high school years and spent time in jail when he injured a teller when he apparently tried to rob a bank. Later, Sam’s veneer of respectability begins to crack (given what he had to do in Afghanistan, whose wouldn’t?) while Tommy showed newfound maturity as a loving, doting uncle, brother, and brother-in-law.
At the end, the roles of the two brothers ran full circle: the caretaker became the one being taken care of while the one who required sympathy and guidance emerged as the one who was there for his brother when he needed him, just as his brother had been there for him.