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Action Is No Reward

Brothers (2009)

Lorey Sebastian/Lionsgate

This is a war film only in that war is an easy background for bad things to happen. What Capt. Sam Cahill (Tobey Maguire) experiences could have taken place anywhere, to any terribly unlucky person. It's just that when your helicopter crashes in Afghanistan you are unluckier than most.

Sam is a Marine, the son of a Marine (Sam Shepard) who — before he leaves — picks up his younger brother Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal) on his release from jail. Sam is married to his teenage sweetheart Grace (Natalie Portman, who is so beautiful not one but two minor characters comment on it) and they have two sparky daughters, Isabelle (Bailee Madison) and Maggie (Taylor Geare). They all live in the same town and travel between houses that look like real homes, with curtains covering the lower half of kitchen windows, eagle-themed decorations and trucks that haven't been washed in a while.

Sam is given up for dead after the helicopter crash, so Grace and her little family must learn to continue without him. One of the film's flaws is that there is no focus on civilian work — what does Grace do with her time? There's a brief scene with her in a school — is she a teacher? Tommy is shown checking into a hotel on his first night of freedom — is that where he lives? Their lives are focused around Sam and his military career, but director Jim Sheridan doesn't seem to understand there is a limit, much as Isabelle refuses to get sentimental when her father tries to draw out the goodbyes.

Alfred Hitchcock said that in a suspense the characters know a bomb is under the table, whereas in a mystery the characters do not. The major problem with "Brothers" is that we are shown what happens to Sam in Afghanistan as it happens, which no one else in the movie knows. Why was that whole sequence not moved to a flashback at the end of the film? What it shows is devastating, but its emotional power is badly weakened when the audience's suspense is wondering merely when Grace and Tommy will learn the truth, not when we will learn ourselves.

The showpiece of this movie is Maggie's birthday party, at which the bomb waiting to go off is Sam. The family make a great show of chatting to Tommy's inappropriate date (Jenny Wade, playing a thankless role with great intelligence) even as Isabelle's sulkiness takes over. She refuses to eat her cake, complains about her own last birthday, then starts playing with a balloon. Sam is a coiled snake waiting to strike, and everyone knows it — but only Isabelle will admit it. She is the most important character in the film. With this film and "In America," Mr. Sheridan moves into the first rank of directors of children. Ms. Madison's performance is better than Anna Paquin in "The Piano" or Abigail Breslin in "Little Miss Sunshine;" she deserves an Oscar nomination at minimum.

It's Isabelle who changes Tommy, too. He is reluctantly joining a skating expedition. As they walk over a bridge, Maggie runs ahead to chat to some strangers, who respond warmly to her; Grace runs after her and Isabelle crumples slightly. "Everybody loves Maggie. She's lovable," she says, looking up at Tommy, daring him to contradict her. Mr. Gyllenhaal looks at her and makes a subtle, split-second decision, and tells her about the time her father saved him from drowning in the river they are crossing. Isabelle asks if she is like her dad or her mom. Tommy takes her hand and says, "You're yourself. And everybody loves you." The huge smile that Isabelle cracks is for both of them.

Mr. Gyllenhaal is so consistently good an actor that he has a tendency to get overlooked in favor of flashier co-stars, but without him this movie would be meaningless. Tommy is smartening up, taking responsibility for his life and realizing he has the power to make better choices now, while Sam had thought he had it all figured out. The differences between Messrs. Maguire and Gyllenhaal — who are perfectly cast — before and after the deployment are subtle but very striking. Before, Sam was a little bit smug, certain about himself and his life, while it was Tommy that squirmed at the dinner table. Afterward, Sam is a burned out shell, visibly hollow with disgust and pain, while it's Tommy who is comfortable, calm and happy.

Ms. Portman, though, has nothing to do but react to them. Grace is at the center of events, the beautiful woman everyone loves, but she's not a person on her own. In the one scene in which she talks about herself, David Benioff's script actually has her say "my life is such a cliché." Most of the information we learn about people in the movie is revealed subtly, such as that Hank's wife Elsie (Mare Winningham, smart, non-showy and ever-present) is the stepmother. Instead Maggie asks Grace, "Is Daddy really dead like your mom and dad?" This triple bereavement could have echoed across the film, but that is not what Grace is for. Even her name is a cliché. She is there to prop up the brothers' journeys of self-discovery. A stronger film would have remembered that she has to make one of her own.

The American scenes are set in Minnesota and heavily snowbound — perhaps as a nod to its origin as an adaptation of a Danish film — although it was entirely filmed in New Mexico. This is a peculiar choice, especially as Mr. Sheridan's previous films have all been deeply rooted in the nuances of their specific settings, whether Belfast, New York or the British prison system. The snowbound, cozy Minnesota scenes are full of bright sunlight and heavy coats, but it's all a little off. The sequences on the military base and in Afghanistan ring more true, but only within strict movie conventionality. Sam's rage and pain is almost fathomless, and Mr. Maguire does as much as he can within very clear limits. But "Brothers" never goes as far as it should. If a gun is waved around, then someone should be shot. Instead the film is too busy admiring the songs on the soundtrack, Ms. Portman's hair and a remodeled kitchen as metaphor. It makes the same mistake of its characters in pretending that if everything is okay on the surface then everything's all right.

A re-edited version of "Brothers," in which the birthday party scene happens without us knowing what happened to Sam in Afghanistan would be an exceptionally powerful film. As it is, it's worth seeing for that scene and Mr. Gyllenhaal's performance, but it's difficult to admire a good film when it's clear it could, with little effort, be so much better.


Opens on Dec. 4 in the United States and on Jan. 22, 2010 in Britain.

Directed by Jim Sheridan; written by David Benioff, based on the Danish motion picture “Brodre” by Susanne Bier and Anders Thomas Jensen; director of photography, Frederick Elmes; edited by Jay Cassidy; music by Thomas Newman; production designer, Tony Fanning; produced by Ryan Kavanaugh, Sigurjon Sighvatsson and Michael De Luca; released by Lionsgate. Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes. This film is rated R by M.P.A.A.

WITH: Tobey Maguire (Sam Cahill), Jake Gyllenhaal (Tommy Cahill), Natalie Portman (Grace Cahill), Sam Shepard (Hank Cahill), Bailee Madison (Isabelle Cahill), Taylor Geare (Maggie Cahill), Patrick Flueger (Private Joe Willis), Clifton Collins Jr. (Major Cavazos), Carey Mulligan (Cassie Willis), Omid Abtahi (Yusuf), Ethan Suplee (Sweeney) and Mare Winningham (Elsie Cahill).


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