Saturday 24 September 2011

Movie Review: Brothers (2009)

Yes, war is hell, but soldiers who survive the battlefield just trade in one agony for another when they return home. Brothers is an intense story of post-traumatic stress disorder, and the destruction unleashed on the home front when veterans fail to cope with the aftermath of combat shock.

Sam (Tobey Maguire) and Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal) are brothers. Sam is a Marine on active duty, a perfect husband for his wife Grace (Natalie Portman), a fun father for his young daughters Isabelle and Maggie, and a model son for his father Hank (Sam Shepard). Tommy has just been released from jail, a loser whose life has so far amounted to exactly nothing.

Sam is deployed to Afghanistan, where his helicopter crashes into a lake. Reported to be dead, Sam is actually captured by the Taliban, tortured, and eventually forced by his captors to beat to death a fellow captive American soldier. Meanwhile, Grace believes that she is a widow, and needs to piece together her life and help Isabelle and Maggie deal with their dad's death. Tommy starts to help Grace in her recovery, and gradually becomes a surrogate father figure for the children. Tommy and Grace are slowly but surely drawn together.

When Sam is rescued and returns home, the new normal in Grace's life is again destroyed. Sam is not the same person who went off to war, and his traumatized mind finds it almost impossible to deal with the reconstituted reality of his domestic home, building to a treacherous crisis with his wife and brother.

To make its point, the Brothers screenplay by David Benioff does push the horror of war. Sam is tipped into the mental darkness after being forced at gun-point to kill a fellow Marine; while dramatic, this is much more than most soldiers who develop PTSD have to endure, but Hollywood is rarely known for choosing pastels when vivids can be manufactured.

Compensating for the excesses in the script, the acting performances and particularly the three main leads elevate Brothers to a delectable, slow-melt drama. Jake Gyllenhaal delivers the most intriguing transformation, as the brother who blooms when life unexpectedly hands him a purpose and a responsibility. Gyllenhaal allows Tommy to even surprise himself, and is most poignant when pushed back out of Grace's life upon Sam's return.

Natalie Portman enhances her reputation as a dramatic actress, in a performance less showy but no less intense than 2010's Black Swan. For the sake of her daughters Grace has to maintain a semblance of normalcy when Sam is reported dead, and then unexpectedly finds it even more difficult to welcome an unhinged husband back into her life. Portman keeps her performance controlled while conveying simmering anguish, and an undercurrent of unease for allowing herself to be happy with Tommy.

Less interesting but still solid is Tobey Maguire, who goes from effective Marine to traumatized veteran without much of a change in expression, although his best acting is physical: Maguire's awkward stance and glassy eyes upon his return home speak volumes without saying a word.

Sam Shepard and Mare Winningham (as Hank's wife) add plenty of earnest supporting talent, and the scenes between Shepard's old-school traditional retired soldier Hank and Gyllenhaal's good-for-nothing Tommy are deliciously uncomfortable.

With an efficient running time of 105 minutes, director Jim Sheridan maintains momentum with scenes of what should be tranquil domesticity regularly disrupted by the nibbling forces of crushed expectations, mis-trust, doubt and jealously. When the shooting stops, the brain damage kicks-in, and the casualties just continue to mount.

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