It takes a little imagination and a lot of courage to make a war movie that doesn't simply remind us of the things we already know. What new stories are there to tell, and who out there in movie land really wants to see them? Especially in a time of war, we need to be reassured that people can survive its horrors (already, a cliché -- is there any new way to say it?).
Brothers takes place in 2004 and revolves around the Cahill family: Sam (Tobey Maguire), the disciplined older brother, who's returning in a few days to Afghanistan; Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal), the prodigal younger one, who's just getting out of prison for a botched bank robbery; Sam's wife, Grace (Natalie Portman), and their two daughters, none of whom want Sam to go (the kids refuse to kiss him goodbye); and the brothers' taciturn dad (Sam Shepard), an alcoholic Vietnam veteran who can only stare down at his dinner plate, and who took out his post-traumatic stress on his kids.
Sam goes off to war just a day or so after he picks up Tommy at the prison gates. He doesn't last long: His chopper gets hit by ground fire, and everyone is lost. Except, of course, we know from the trailer that he's not: After some time in Taliban captivity, where he's forced to do the unspeakable, he returns home with a dose of PTSD that makes his dad look like a saint.
Meanwhile, Tommy has stepped up. He and his buddies re-do Grace's kitchen, and he begins to care for his nieces. Sam's return is difficult for everyone, but especially so for Sam, who won't believe that Tommy and Grace haven't slept together. And then there's what he did to get home: He can't tell anyone, can barely even tell himself. And he has a gun, so you can imagine the rest of the story.
Except that it doesn't take much imagination. The director, Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot), and the screenwriter, David Benioff (whose novel 25th Hour was beautifully filmed by Spike Lee), are adapting a Danish movie of the same name, plot and limitations, and they walk through the moments we expect to see with sobriety and seriousness.
But what else would you expect from a movie that can't even come up with a title? You can't call a movie Brothers and have it be about anything else. We're all brothers and sisters, all part of the brother- and sisterhood of humankind. If you want to see a story about brothers, re-make East of Eden. And if you want to do a story about war, don't muck it up with all this family crap.
It's Deer Hunter lite, except that older movie had a strong central metaphor about the suicide of fighting a war in Vietnam. There's no such dramatic possibility with Afghanistan, a war provoked by a situation that left us few alternatives (at least, back then). "They train you to use deadly force," says a surprisingly insightful blonde whom Tommy brings to a family dinner one night, "but nobody can be trained to watch someone die." She's right, of course. But so what? This is a movie about Brothers.
A few scenes in Brothers have a quiver of resonance, most of them involving Isabelle (Bailee Madison), the older of Sam and Grace's two daughters. She's dangerously perceptive, and she shows why parents should put their kids to bed (or in front of the computer) rather than allowing them to listen to adult conversations.
Fortunately, the acting and the actors are compelling enough to hold our attention. Portman especially breaks out here, measuring her emotions in ways that allow us into Grace's pain without getting sloppy. She composes herself naturalistically here, and I'm happy to report that she's not a princess after all.
Starts Fri., Dec. 4