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.
Some edge enhancement occasionally distracts from what is otherwise a magnificant, pleasantly grainy image that’s rich in warm, accurate skin tones and color saturation, superb black levels, and even more stellar shadow delineation. The sound is excellent, clear, and enveloping throughout, but the littlest sounds, from the snow crunching beneath a character’s foot to the striking of a lighter’s flame, resonate a tad too strongly, suggesting some overzealous sound effects editing.
Jim Sheridan provides a thoughtful commentary track that’s most interesting for his insights into his predictably stellar work with actors. He’s way too humble to admit that his work with children is peerless, and though he says that Bailee Madison and Taylor Geare are natural talents, his thoughts on the malleability of the young mind and how careful you must tread when working with child actors suggests that he’s tapped into something few other directors have. Perhaps it’s something to do with his philosophical, humanistic perspective, which is lovingly celebrated on the "Jim Sheridan: Film and Family" featurette by his stars, most of whom appear before a terribly green-screened backdrop of the film’s set. The cast and crew also pay their respects to Susan Bier’s original film on "Remade in the USA: How Brødre Became Brothers": You admire everyone’s adoration of Bier’s film, though the arrogance with which one person declares that "the film should have been made for an American audience" is naturally off-putting, which is to say nothing of the head-scratching moment when screenwriter David Benioff, who’s written nothing but hackwork between 25th Hour and this film, declares that he expected to turn the original movie off after 15 minutes after receiving a DVD copy. Guess the writer of X-Men Origins: Wolverine doesn’t get to the art house much. Rounding out the disc: a theatrical trailer and a bunch of previews.
Minor Jim Sheridan, perhaps, but freakishly well-acted by Toby Maguire and young actresses Bailee Madison and Taylor Geare.