Sometimes, in very rare instances, basic arithmetic does not apply. Sometimes 1 + 1 + 1 does not, in fact, = 3. Take BROTHERS, for instance, a drama that does everything it can to prop its success up on the efforts made by its parts. Nearly everyone involved, particularly those in front of the camera, are doing their part. It’s the summation, the glaze over everything that doesn’t seem to be gelling the way it should. It’s film about family. It’s a film called BROTHERS. However, there is very little in the way of connection between many of the characters. In the end, the entire film suffers for it.
In the film, Tobey Maguire plays Sam, a Marine who is about to ship off to Afghanistan for his fourth tour of duty. He leaves behind his loving wife, Grace, played by Natalie Portman, his two, precious daughters, played by Bailee Madison and Taylor Grace Geare, his father and stepmother, played by Sam Shepard and Mare Winningham, and his recently-released-from-jail younger brother, Tommy, played by Jake Gyllenhaal. Tommy is the black sheep of the family, the kind of man who reacts, almost always violently. Sam, a devoted man to both his family and his country, goes to Afghanistan, and, early in the film, he is caught in a helicopter crash that leaves him and a private hostage to a group of freedom fighters.
Meanwhile, back home, Sam’s family is informed that he did not survive the crash. Months go by, and Grace makes an effort at moving passed the tragedy that has just befallen her. Tommy, looking for any kind of redemption in the eyes of the world but more importantly those of his father, steps in as caregiver to Grace and the girls. He moves into the house, helps take care of day-to-day dealings, and, ultimately, finds himself drawn to the family life. The pseudo life he and Grace eventually build for themselves begins to unravel once it is learned that Sam is, in fact, alive and coming back home.
The unfortunate thing about BROTHERS, one of many, is that this is synopsis, which is, essentially, given away in all the synopses and the trailer for the film, is about 85 to 90% of the narrative as it plays out. While it jumps to Sam in Afghanistan awfully early, one of the main factors in that disconnection between his character and that of Tommy’s, it moves quite slowly from getting from point B to point C and so on. Much of this is made up of scenes with Tommy and Grace taking the girls ice skating, Tommy helping build Grace a new kitchen, Tommy slowly but surely winning favor back with his father.
The screenplay, written by 25th HOUR, TROY, and WOLVERINE screenwriter David Benioff and based on a 2004 Danish film, unfolds these scenes rather slowly. It helps immensely that the director behind the film, Jim Sheridan, does a superb job crafting these scenes, making you almost feel something between Grace and Tommy, even though few scenes are written to, actually, show this. The scenes involving Sam fighting for survival in a rocky, prison camp are interspersed throughout, and Sheridan handily pieces these scenes together, as well.
What Sheridan’s real gift, though, and it’s one that is found in BROTHERS in strides, is his amazing ability to pull performances from his actors. It’s not to say that Gyllenhaal, Maguire, and Portman are not immensely talented screen actors. They are. But there’s no denying the hand Sheridan had in getting these actors to turn in these types of performances, some of which are truly against their type. If there is a crack in the hull of this acting trio, it’s Maguire in the late stages of the film. The way Sam’s character and his story arc plays out, Maguire is forced to transform himself, move from one extreme to the other, and this transformation is anything but smooth. You see it begin to fall apart in Maguire’s performance when he brings the bug eyes out, a clear-cut showing of someone going off the deep end. It only serves to elicit unwarranted laughter from the audience. By the time Sam is smashing cabinet doors and yelling obscenities at his wife, there’s just no going back.
The crowning achievement in BROTHERS, however, is the performance Sheridan pulls from young actress Bailee Madison. Sheridan proved in 2004’s IN AMERICA that he has a gift for getting staggering performances from his child actors, and, with Madison’s turn in BROTHERS, he seals the deal that he is the go-to guy for this type of thing. Madison makes you weep for her character, and, at only ten years old, she has an effortless ability at capturing the audience’s attention.
BROTHERS is a film that never fully achieves a sum of its parts. There are highly gifted parts at work here, and it is unfortunate the connection between them could never gel better than it does. Part of this is in Sheridan’s direction. His grade A gift seems to be in handling his individual actors. A lot of the blame falls on Benioff’s shoulders and his screenplay, which never, truly, seems to know what story it wants to tell. Is it a story about survival? Is it a story about family connections? Is it a thriller about a man who cannot forgive himself for the wrongs he has committed? BROTHERS seems to want with all of its might to be all of these things rolled into one. However, it never fully realizes any of them. In the end, the only connection the film succeeds in creating is the one between your back and the theater seat.