All the accolades and media coverage showered upon 'The Hurt Locker' over the past several weeks make it easy to forget some of the other fine movies addressing the war on terror, most notably 'Brothers,' an intimate, riveting account of one soldier's agonizing transition to civilian life after enduring unspeakable horror and torture at the hands of ruthless Afghan rebels. Director Jim Sheridan's quiet, gut-wrenching drama depicts the fallout from that ordeal and its devastating effect on the loving family members who struggle to pick up the pieces of a splintering life while striving to keep their own fragile existence intact. Though not as tension-filled as Kathryn Bigelow's Oscar-winning thriller, 'Brothers' imparts an equally visceral experience, drawing its strength and power from ticking time bombs deep within the soul that can't be easily diffused. It also possesses more topicality and relevance, now that our country's military focus has shifted to Afghanistan's rugged terrain.
Shortly after his reckless, aimless brother Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal) gains his release from prison, strait-laced Captain Sam Cahill (Tobey Maguire) leaves his wife Grace (Natalie Portman) and their two young daughters, Isabelle (Bailee Madison) and Maggie (Taylor Geare), for another lengthy tour of duty in Afghanistan. Always the golden child, Sam is revered by his tough, ex-Marine father (Sam Shepard) and compassionate stepmother (Mare Winningham), while Tommy must weather his dad's constant onslaught of disapproval, disappointment, and derision. Tommy drowns his sorrows in drink, but after Sam is presumed dead when a Taliban missile strikes down his helicopter, the perennial screw-up begins to straighten up, and provides immeasurable support to Grace and the girls, acting as friend, confidante, and surrogate father. Tommy and Grace offer each other mutual comfort in the tragedy's wake, but soon receive the unbelievable news that Sam is alive and will be returning home. Unfortunately, the joyous reunion is short-lived, as Sam's demons prevent him from reconnecting with his family and environment by fueling depression and paranoia, both of which threaten to upset the delicate balance of his domestic life.
Based on the acclaimed Danish film of the same name, 'Brothers' tells what seems on its surface to be a trite, clichéd tale. I mean, let's face it, how many soaps and serials have resurrected dead husbands just as their wives begin to heal and entertain the idea of a new relationship? Yet there's nothing cheap about its presentation here, and no cheesy love triangle develops. Sure, it's a plot device, but the direction and performances are so sensitive and natural, we quickly look beyond it and concentrate instead on the raw feelings lurking underneath. Up until the harrowing climax, most of the film's home front scenes are subtle, slice-of-life episodes that delicately build binding connections between the characters and audience. As a result, we develop an affinity for the Cahill family and relate to their problems as if they were our own, so when the simmering tensions at last boil over, the impact cuts deep. 'Brothers' ultimately puts us through an emotional wringer, and in the process becomes one of the best depictions of how war can shatter the lives of soldiers and families, and how returning home can be more difficult and disquieting than fighting a barbaric enemy.
Sheridan is a no-nonsense, economical director who favors realism over beauty and artifice. His simple shots immerse us in the small-town, working-class atmosphere of Middle America, and his focus on people's reactions to events and conversations creates an intimate dramatic environment. 'Brothers' is all about family dynamics and the complex relationships that evolve over decades, and Sheridan masterfully navigates that tricky universe to which we all can easily and painfully relate. Forgiveness, regret, jealousy, resentment, guilt, helplessness, and self-pity are only a few of the feelings the film touches upon, but only rarely in an overt fashion. A glance here, an aversion of the eyes there is all Sheridan usually provides to telegraph the buried truths inside his characters, and it's a highly effective form of communication.
Of course, without fine actors, 'Brothers' would have no bite. Maguire sheds his boyish 'Spider-Man' persona and transforms himself into a tense, tortured Marine, funneling all his suppressed emotions into his rigid frame and hollow eyes. Alternating between dazed stares, piercing gazes, and creepily maniacal looks, he delves deep into his character's anguish and only occasionally overplays his hand. It's a very tricky role, and most of the time Maguire nails it. Gyllenhaal has a far less showy part, but his easygoing manner and expressive face convey a wealth of sensitivity that beautifully underscores the story, and his work with the stunning Portman, who has developed into a mature, intuitive actress in the Audrey Hepburn vein, is exceptional.
As the gruff grandpa, Shepard plays a character familiar to him with his usual steely intensity, and Winningham brings welcome warmth and resolve to her thankless role. But arguably the best performances of all come from child actors Madison and Geare, both of whom file exceedingly natural portrayals that carry tremendous weight. Madison especially impresses as the older daughter who's just old enough to sense the friction and discord within her family, but not grown up enough to understand or deal with it. Rarely can juveniles make us forget they're acting, but these two girls do, and the movie is all the more compelling because of their contributions.
'Brothers' may not be the definitive look at returning soldiers and the struggles they and their loved ones face, but it's an important, pertinent, deeply moving story that's well told and brilliantly performed. Its somber nature may have turned off audiences during its theatrical run, but this intimate drama deserves to be seen, and plays especially well where it hits the hardest – home.
'Brothers' hits Blu-ray sporting an especially strong 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC transfer that effortlessly sucks us into this powerful drama. Given the movie's low-budget, gritty look, I honestly wasn't expecting much in the way of vibrancy and dimensionality, but the first shot of a flag raising at a military base entrance sets the visual tone with top-flight clarity, contrast, and color temperature, and the transfer sustains that high level of quality for the balance of the film. The spotless source material exhibits a faint touch of grain, but a crisp, high-def feel predominates. Close-ups are often stunning, with fine details such as facial blemishes and stubble jumping off the screen. Interiors look appropriately drab and a tad muted, but outdoor shots burst forth with bold hues and vivid accents. Though there's not a lot color on display, what's there is always well rendered and never appears artificial.
Black levels are deep and rich, the white snowscapes resist blooming, and fleshtones are always spot on. Shadow detail is quite good, too, despite a few occurrences of digital noise during dimly lit scenes. Banding and edge enhancement, however, are completely absent. 'Brothers' couldn't have received a better Blu-ray treatment, and this excellent effort from Lionsgate does this intimate film proud.
Though largely dialogue driven and featuring lots of contemplative pauses, the 'Brothers' soundtrack enjoys a few moments of showy audio, and the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track showcases them well. The American aerial raid on the Afghan hideout is distinguished by fine directional use and seamless pans, while the subwoofer provides a few notable rumbles as the jets roar overhead. In other scenes, subtle details are easy to pick out, and more distinct accents, such as the annoying sound of fingers rubbing against the skin of a balloon, possess marvelous presence. Thomas Newman's music score may not wrap around the sound field as fully as we'd like, but its great fidelity and clarity of tone still create the hoped for dramatic impact.
Most of the time, though, the sound remains rooted in the front channels, and there's not a lot of stereo separation to enliven the track. Dialogue, whether shouted or spoken in hushed tones, is always well prioritized and easy to understand, and even when Maguire goes on a rampage, there's no distortion. Given the film's parameters, this lossless track does a fine job honoring its source, and makes 'Brothers' as immediate and involving as it can.
Only a few supplements augment the disc, but they're of good quality and worth checking out.
'Brothers' flew under the radar when it was released theatrically late last year, but hopefully this excellent drama will attract the wide audience it deserves in the home video market. Director Jim Sheridan strikes just the tone in his depiction of a working class family torn apart by the Afghan conflict, and superior performances from Tobey Maguire, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Natalie Portman help hammer home the film's universal truths. Top-flight video, solid audio, and a few good supplements heighten the power of this gripping motion picture, which easily earns an enthusiastic recommendation.