Like Deer Hunter, which it most closely echoes, Brothers is driven by a clear and present sub-theme: What happens in Afghanistan does not stay in Afghanistan. At a time when America-at-war looks to be a recurring and deepening topic, Brothers makes a strong and relevant statement about the rigors and anarchic conditions of the battlefield. More importantly, though, the story grapples with assorted internal conflicts-back on American soil, at one’s own family hearth, and with one’s nightmarish memories.
In Deer Hunter, Christopher Walken is the war-torn and altered soul who can’t really go home again. Here, the war is on the front President Barack Obama put back in our faces recently, and the haunted soldier is Tobey Maguire, all grown up. Back home in New Mexico, after being reported dead, his roustabout, bearded brother (Jake Gyllenhaal) has taken an active role in providing for the soldier’s family and wife (Natalie Portman). The emotional maze intensifies after the soldier survives a harrowing scene on the front and returns, back from the “dead.”
Brothers, based on the Danish film Br,dre, may have the underpinnings of a family melodrama, in which tensions and desires get caught in assorted crossfire situations, but director Jim Sheridan is shrewd and insightful enough to put the filmic elements together in an artful, redemptive way. Composer Thomas Newman, whose music works especially well in terse domestic dramas (American Beauty) contributes just the right textured touch, as does veteran visual poet, cinematographer Frederick Elmes.
At the emotional epicenter of the film are strong, mostly quiet performances from the three principals, and great supportive acting in the margins. As a confused young daughter, the highly expressive Bailee Madison puts in one of the year’s great “child actor” performances, and Sam Shepard shines brutishly as the tough Vietnam-vet father, who chides the bearded son and admires that the other “had no quit in him.” But by film’s end, our returning hero wishes his haunting memories, and his desire to flee the comforts of home for the front lines, would quit him. It’s a story for our times, sharply but subtly told.