Jim Sheridan has a gift for capturing glimpses of unvarnished, authentic emotion, and his humanism runs so deep that it’s capable of elevating even standard-issue fare like Brothers. In this remake of Susan Bier’s 2004 Danish original, marine captain Sam (Tobey Maguire) is shot down in Afghanistan and, though his family is informed that he’s dead, is held as the Taliban’s POW. When Sam returns home, he discovers his ne’er-do-well ex-con bro Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal)—beset by conventional problems with their boozy vet dad (Sam Shepard)—has gotten close to his wife Grace (Natalie Portman) and two daughters (Bailee Madison, Taylor Geare), who now rightfully fear Sam because of his haunted, powder-keg eyes.
Working from David Benioff’s script, Sheridan allows his material to develop with a patience that places emphasis on his character’s tumultuous circumstances, and as in In America, he elicits outstanding performances from his child actors, with Madison in particular exuding not just youthful joy and fear, but soul-deep anxiety (laced with bitterness) over the dawning comprehension that her dad’s happily-ever-after return has mucked up her reality more than his apparent death. Madison’s angry tears during a volatile birthday dinner have a naturalness that’s bracing, especially in light of Portman’s turn as Grace, which has the quality of an actress hitting the right notes without actually feeling them, and is therefore unsurprisingly cut short in many big sequences—such as when she receives the momentous phone call informing her that Sam is alive—at the very moment when the scene demands potent pathos. Maguire and Gyllenhaal fare slightly better thanks not to more fully written parts (Benioff keeps his prime players on an evenly two-dimensional level), but instead to a few offhand shots that strikingly evoke their ordinariness.
Unfortunately, due to its preceding characterization, the film never quite sells the pivotal second-act deed by Sam that sends things spiraling toward its somewhat mechanical conclusion, in which jealousy, misunderstandings, confusion, and post-traumatic stress disorder all conspire to bring tensions to a head. Sheridan’s intense consideration of his characters’ impossible plights resounds throughout. Yet such empathy is lavished on a rather routine narrative destined for histrionic outbursts and cathartic acts of communication that increasingly veer away from the real and more toward the affected.