10 December 2009 | MisterWhiplash
a triumph of acting over story
Brothers is something we may have seen before - if not in its original incarnation from Denmark in 2004 then The Deer Hunter - then it is something that surprises just on the vulnerability, subtlety and ferocity of the actors in their roles. It's not about what the trailer pushes, which is an affair between a guy (Jake Gyllenhaal) and his sister in law (Natalie Portman) while the one guy's brother (Tobey Maguire) is away at war. There is one scene of that, but that's not really what the film is 'about' per-say. It's about the personal affects of war on one man, a horrific tragedy that befalls him, and how he has to live with that the rest of his life, specifically in front of his wife and children. Maguire's Sam says it simply towards the end: "Only the dead see the end of war. I have seen the end of War. How do I go on living?"
If I may have spoiled the message of the movie- and in its own microcosm way it's as anti-war (or perhaps just anti-torture) as it could get in modern movies- it shouldn't detract from the pleasures of Brothers. This is seeing the actors- Portman, Gyllenhaal, Sam Shephard, especially Maguire- fill in these characters with enough depth and passions and fears and desires and ghosts that make them more than real to us. That's not just their achievement but director Jim Sheridan's. He lets his players breathe life into characters who, while not wooden or two-dimensional by any stretch, need that extra push as seen in David Benioff's characterizations and scenarios. Family life, its fragility and it's equal amount of love and self-torment, is what counts (again, Deer Hunter), and it's this that works in the film.
A word though about Tobey Maguire. I'm not the only critic pointing him out, and it goes without saying he's not the only worthwhile actor in the cast (there's even performances by the girls playing Sam's kids that are extraordinary). But it's the transformation that really counts. Perhaps it's noteworthy that both brothers do transform in the film, as Tommy, the ex-con, goes from being a drunken nobody to stepping up to help his brother's barely-holding-it-together wife after the news that her husband is dead, while Sam is in the downward spiral. It's crucial too that Sheridan shows those scenes in Afghanistan that cause Sam to change so radically as he does (the way they're inter-cut in the at-home narrative is a little uneasy, one of the flaws of the film), so that we see a good person shrunk down to his deepest, darkest depths.
When that last third comes around, it's electrifying how intense Maguire can get, even when he's just in his insinuating mode ala Jake LaMotta of accusing his brother of adultery. For anyone just looking at Maguire as Spider-Man's Peter Parker must give this a look to see his range; indeed a double feature of Brothers and Seabiscuit will show how Maguire is one of the most underrated actors under forty in Hollywood. If the role calls for it, as it does here, he goes to town, a you-can't-blame-him Oscar bait performance.