There are moments in Brothers that hint at a good film that could have been made from this material. Those moments are lost, however, like piglets in a meat-packing plant: quickly, brutally, so horrifically that any positive memories are burned away by the slaughter you witnessed. Brothers is terrible. No, not just terrible: offensive. Offensive that it thought it could take on the material it attempts, and offensive that it all but reams the material with its startlingly inane delivery.
Brothers, directed by Jim Sheridan, is based on a 2004 Danish film of the same name. It follows Sam Cahill (Tobey Maguire), a marine who goes missing in Afghanistan and is presumed dead. The film jumps between his experience as a POW with the experience of his wife (Natalie Portman), children, and brother (Jake Gyllenhaal), who must fix the whole that his (supposed) death has created.
Portman and Gyllenhaal do as much as they can. My God, do they try. And you know, for a few minutes, they almost succeed. Some of the scenes involving Sam's wife and brother are tender, emotionally honest, and (almost) dramatically fulfilling. Then Jim Sheridan, a usually competent director, destroys any attempts at legitimacy with his ridiculous sense of juxtaposition. The quiet domestic scenes are harshly cut with the Afghanistan scenes, which are poorly made, gratuitously bloodthirsty, and melodramatic. Sheridan doesn't even have the good sense to let individual scenes play out before switching locales: this film contains a scene in which two young children are making pancakes. We see them making pancakes, then talking to Gyllenhaal's character. Quick cut to Tobey Maguire's friend having hot irons pressed into his skin. Back to the pancakes. The children show them to mommy. Cut back to Afghanistan. Questions are asked during torture. Cut back to the kitchen. Mommy seems pleased. Perhaps I'm not looking into this enough, but I see absolutely no narrative or stylistic advantage to editing these scenes together. Perhaps Jim Sheridan is trying to show that children cooking is similar to torture. Perhaps pancakes and branding irons are both tools of horror. We'll never know. Assuming, however, that his goal wasn't to liken pancake batter to sizzling flesh, all the film achieves is losing the narrative and dramatic thread of both scenes. Neither scene works, because the other scene continues to interrupt it. And it doesn't help that the Afghanistan scenes are so bad.
Which leads us to Tobey Maguire. Maybe this is a personal shortcoming of mine, but I just can't take Tobey Maguire seriously as an actor, and frankly, this film doesn't exactly help change my mind. Maguire puts on his serious face lots, and there are many close-ups of angry stares, jutting jaws, and half-grins, and we even get some shrieking and keening, but it's all a whole lot of nothing. Maguire's performance is like a bad melodrama: if people aren't booing and hissing in your theater, they certainly should be.
Brothers' greatest sin, however, is arrogance. It takes very heavy, dark material (war widows, torture, POWs, grief, growing up with one parent, etc.), and takes a gigantic dump on them. I'm not saying one must approach these things with complete reverence and awe, but for the love of Cthulu, don't make them ridiculous. Brothers is so over the top that it destroys any chance it has of saying something intelligent, or hell, of even looking intelligent. Instead, what it does is cheapen the experiences of the people who have to go through the hell of being a POW, or losing a loved one in a war, by reducing all of it to exploitative schlock. And I just can't forgive the film for that. Maybe I'm being too hard on the film's positive aspects, but the fact of the matter is it raises its yo-yo finger to real pain and goes for banal melodrama.