Brothers is one of only a few movies that deals with America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Released in 2009, Brothers stars Tobey Maguire, Jake Gyllenhaal, Natalie Portman, Sam Shepard, and Mare Winningham, and is directed by Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot, In the Name of the Father).
Brothers is less a story about brothers as it is about family. Two brothers – Sam and Tommy Cahill – are the central characters in a drama about the effects of war on one fictional family that sends one of its sons off to fight…
The Cahills, with a strong tradition of service to their country, live in a close-knit southwestern community. Sam Cahill is a young Marine Corps officer assigned to a nearby military base. Sam is married to Grace, his high school sweetheart; they have two daughters, Isabelle and Maggie. Much to his family’s distress, he has volunteered for his fourth tour to Afghanistan.
Tommy Cahill is Sam’s older brother. He’s a recent parolee from prison; what crime he has committed we do not know; we can surmise, however, because the crime involved a woman. Tommy is rebellious, resentful of authority, irresponsible… and very close to his brother.
The two brothers’ close relationship is severely put to the test when news arrives that Sam has been killed in Afghanistan. Tommy decides to accept responsibility for keeping an eye on Sam’s family; soon Grace and Tommy begin moving from enmity to civility to friendship. Then friendship begins evolving into genuine affection…
At this point, we discover that Sam is not dead. Freed by his fellow Marines from imprisonment by Afghan insurgents, Sam returns home a drastically changed man. He now broods darkly and silently, unable to share his feelings with his family. He senses something amiss; he constantly watches Grace and the girls, especially when they’re together with Tommy. He begins casting silent, suspicious eyes on his wife and brother…
One of Jim Sheridan’s great strengths as a director is his ability to capture the essence of what it means to be “family” in times of crisis. I have seen three of Sheridan’s movies now: My Left Foot, In the Name of the Father, and Brothers.
A major theme in all three films is families in crisis. In My Left Foot, Christy Brown, so debilitated by cerebral palsy that he could move only his left foot, drew love and encouragement from his family on his way to becoming a successful Irish novelist. In In the Name of the Father, Gerry and Guiseppe Conlon, a son and his father, are imprisoned for crimes they didn’t commit. They must learn to overcome personal animosity and to draw strength from each other as they seek their freedom.
This same theme of a family in crisis is explored in Brothers, this time within the context of a war’s devastating effect upon a family. The emotions experienced by the Cahills – disapproval, resentment, sibling rivalry, jealousy, rage, guilt, and fear – all find voice in this movie. The emotions are portrayed so palpably that I felt like I was actually peering into a real family trying to cope with real problems. That is a tremendous credit to the outstanding performances given by from the movie’s strong ensemble cast, and to a superb production team.
Several performances are worthy of special mention. I was particularly impressed with Tobey Maguire’s portrayal of the tortured and guilt-ridden Sam Cahill. He brings great texture and nuance to his character, especially with his facial expressions. Also very good are Jake Gyllenhaal as Tommy, Natalie Portman as Grace, and Sam Shepard as Hank. The film’s great “scene stealer” is ten year-old Bailee Madison who delivers a tremendous performance as the Cahills’ struggling and rebellious oldest daughter Isabelle.
The only real criticism I have of Brothers is its occasional lack of energy. Brothers is primarily a “dialog movie,” and as such, it must rely on crisp and timely line delivery to move the story along. That doesn’t always happen here; lines are sometimes lethargically delivered. There also doesn’t seem to be much tension in the few action sequences that do appear in the film. I suspect the slow pace of Brothers may be a deliberate device used to heighten the sense of sadness and loss. If so, it didn’t work; I found the film’s somewhat slow pace a distraction.
MY VERDICT: Despite a rather somber tone and its occasionally slow-moving tempo, Brothers is actually a pretty well acted, written, and directed film that speaks eloquently about the strength of family bonds in times of crisis. Recommended!
Information from DVD case