Two brothers, a wife, and a family in peril ~ That Movie Blogger Fella

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Two brothers, a wife, and a family in peril

My rating:

Change of plans, guys - From Paris with Love will have to wait. I've been wanting to catch this since I read James Berardinelli's glowing review, and I never expected our local cinema distributors to bring it to our shores. But they did, on the same week as Up in the Air and Invictus, so clearly it's riding the wave of interest in the awards season (although Brothers only got Golden Globe nods for Best Actor and Best Song). And by the time you read this, its run in Klang Valley cinemas will be over, so yeah, I caught it just in time.

It's definitely good, but I was kinda expecting better.

Sam (Tobey Maguire) and Tommy Cahill (Jake Gyllenhaal) are brothers; Sam is the respectable one, husband to Grace (Natalie Portman) and father to daughters Isabelle (Bailee Madison) and Maggie (Taylor Geare), and a U.S. Marines Captain. Tommy, on the other hand, has just been released from prison; he is the black sheep of the family and has lived with his father Hank's (Sam Shepard) thinly-veiled contempt all his life. When Sam is reported killed in action in Afghanistan, Tommy gets his act together and provides comfort and support for a grieving Grace and her daughters. But Sam is not dead - he returns home, but as a shell of his former self, emotionally scarred by his experiences as a prisoner of war. A stranger to his family, suspicious of Grace and Tommy's closeness, and consumed with guilt, Sam's return threatens to tear the fragile Cahill's family bonds apart.

I like genre movies; given a choice, I'll always prefer an action movie or a thriller, or better yet something with a sci-fi or fantasy element. But the best genre movies are those in which the drama is as effective as the thrills, so I still look out for those films that don't need explosions or CGI effects to tell a good story. Even though it's not as good as I expected, Brothers is still one of them. The subject matter may sound boring; the plot may be oh so very Drama Minggu Ini. But Roger Ebert said "a film is not what it's about, but how it's about." And this film takes a very soap opera-ish premise and makes it compelling viewing.

The first thing it does is make all the characters smart, mature and likable. Tommy may have been a good-for-nothing all his life, but he steps in to fill his brother's shoes out of as much innate warmth and kindness as a desire to redeem himself. Grace's grief is so painful, and the burden of carrying on for her daughters' sake so great, that her turning to Tommy for comfort is entirely understandable. And Sam's ordeal was so traumatic, and his guilt so great, that his lashing out at his family is an act of self-destruction. At one point, he says to his brother, "you two look like a couple of teenagers in love." Do they? No, not really; we saw Tommy and Grace share a kiss during a moment of weakness, but they've been perfectly conscientious since Sam's return. But Sam is seeing what he wants to see.

That scene, where Sam asks Tommy if he and Grace had ever slept together, is a great one - as is a later one during a family gathering in which the tensions between brother and brother, husband and wife, and father and children finally boil over. Scenes like these prove that a good drama can be as tense and gripping as any thriller; when people we've come to know and like are put in danger, even if the danger is to their happiness. And aside from crafting sympathetic and understandable characters, what makes it work is that magic combination of writing, acting and directing that makes the drama real. There isn't a hint of artifice or contrivance throughout the movie. Every emotion it wrings out of you rings true.

Now here's where I explain why I expected better. Brothers is a remake of the 2004 Danish film Brødre, and I had read a review of that film that revealed what happened to Sam's counterpart character when he was a prisoner of war in Afghanistan. I consider this a spoiler. I think this movie would've been much more effective if I hadn't known beforehand what Sam would be put through, even if I already knew he'd survive to return to the States. As it is, Sam's ordeal seemed pretty routine to me, reminiscent of similar scenes in The Deer Hunter and other "war is hell" movies. (I recommend not clicking on that link till after you've watched the movie.) Also, the resolution of its dramatic conflicts seemed a little too easy, or even unresolved altogether. I understand that what the story was trying to say is that wounds like these never really heal - they can only be lived with. Still, I would've liked more closure.

Maybe it's the acting. The performances are effective but not spectacular. I'm inclined to think Gyllenhaal underplays Tommy a little too much; I never really got a sense of the shiftless ne'er-do-well he was in the beginning, but he's believable as a warm and caring uncle and brother-in-law. Natalie Portman has the most difficult role amongst the three principals; her character is the most consistent and unshowy, and she's mostly just reacting to the two brothers, but Portman never misses a beat. Tobey Maguire still reminded me of Peter Parker, but during the later half of the film his wild-eyed insanity is definitely something you've never seen in him before. (Oh, and if Portman and Maguire seem too young for these roles, it's because Sam and Grace are exactly the kind of all-American young couple who got married and had kids right out of high school.) Watch out also for a pair of terrific performances from child actors Bailee Madison and Taylor Geare; Madison especially is amazingly and heartbreakingly natural.

Y'know what else it might've been? Our good ol' Lembaga Penapisan Filem. They've been pretty good at leaving the vulgar language intact in recent movies, but Brothers must've been from before they got the message; it's chopped up pretty bad, especially in the big dramatic scenes where the F-word starts flying. So don't feel bad about missing this in the cinemas, but instead pick it up on DVD. I realise now that I've been writing this review as if I'm speaking to someone who only watches blockbuster movies - who wouldn't bother with something like this because there aren't any giant robots or CGI monsters or kungfu fighting. But seriously guys, you should. This is what real drama, real characters, real storytelling is about. You're missing out big time if you can't appreciate a film like this.

Note: I watched this at Big Cinemas, Brem Mall Kepong. I'm afraid I'll have to disrecommend it. There's a nightclub on the floor below, and I could hear the techno bass in the goddamn cinema hall. Also, their halls don't have stadium seating. The only thing it's got going for it is that few people go there, so you'll probably get tickets to a movie that's sold out everywhere else. But don't go at night.

NEXT REVIEW: Up in the Air
Expectations: very much looking forward to it