Veteran director Jim Sheridan has coaxed uncomfortable performances out of his actors and put together an incisive film on war, love and tragedy.
Based on a 2004 Danish film, which took its inspiration from Homer's The Odyssey, the story picks up by showing two brothers who have taken very different paths in life. Sam (Tobey Maguire) is a decorated US marine, with two young daughters and a beautiful wife (Natalie Portman). His younger brother, Tommy, is the black sheep of the family and has just been released from prison. Despite their differences, the pair clearly love each other and are keen to resume their relationship. But when Sam is sent to fight in Afghanistan and word reaches his family that he was killed in a helicopter crash, the good-natured Tommy steps in to comfort them. After several months of grieving, it is discovered that Sam was not killed but held prisoner and tortured by his captors. When he finally returns to his wife and family, there is little of his old self left. At first, all three actors appear miscast in their roles and slightly unbelievable as the dysfunctional blue-collar family. It is particularly difficult to believe that Gyllenhaall has been to jail. But by the midway point, the characters make sense and the performances feel real. As the battle-damaged Sam, Maguire is superb, giving one of the performances of his career. The film relies on a few old clichés to provide drama, but its central points - that war is abject and brutalising, and that violence begets violence - are expertly made. The child actors who play the family's grieving children are particularly impressive, and not just in the most uncomfortable scenes. In Brothers, Sheridan has made a film that is poignant, moving and remarkably brave.