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Cinema Signal: Not quite a green light but has elements of strong appeal for certain audience.

Michael Jackson:
The Interviews
Vol. 2 (2009)
. "Brothers"

"In an essentially intelligent psychological drama, Danish writer-director Susanne Bier ("Things We Lost in the Fire") and co-writer Anders Thomas Jensen ("The Duchess") showed us, in 2004, some sure-footedness in developing a complex story and engaging us with characters that make the traumatic stress disorder of war on a reasonable man compelling and potentially tragic. That it didn't entirely avoid some cliches, and bordered on melodrama, didn't spoil the timely interest of its core subject and the level of tension that it worthily generates."

Which is essentially how I started my review of Bier's Swedish film, "Brodre" or "Brothers." In fact, this remake by Jim Sheridan from Bier's script doesn't depart from the original enough to call it a different film--except for the American cast, restaging and a minor addition or two. So, why reinvent the wheel? There may be a reason, so read on.

The two brothers of the title are the Cahill boys, Capt. Sam (Tobey Maguire), a career military man who seems to excel at everything and is both a role model and an impossible standard to live up to for the family truant Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal), whom we meet as Sam picks him up from prison upon his release. The point is made about the differences between the two men.

Tommy's love and respect for Sam is intertwined with the rebelliousness that comes of despair at never living up to his standard. True to type, crew-cut Sam asks his loose and errant bro' if, in all the time he's been locked up, he's thought about apologizing to the victim of his crime. Shrug.

As though Tommy's own feelings of inadequacy aren't enough, they're copiously amplified by their stiff-backed father Hank (Sam Shepard) who sees no problem with praising Sam like a god and downgrading Tommy like a sewer rat--at the dinner table--before Tommy's lovely wife Grace (Natalie Portman) and daughters Isabelle (Bailee Madison, "Bridge to Terabithia") and littler Maggie (Taylor Geare). Dad's obsessively degrading attitude toward the one he regards as the lesser of his two boys leaves no doubt about the source of Tommy's anger and lack of fulfillment.

Sam is called up for another tour of duty and, after tearful goodbyes during which his two young daughters deal with his departure in their own, hurtful ways, he ships out to Afghanistan. On his first mission to find a missing soldier, his helicopter is shot down, he's captured by a small group of Afghani militants along with Private Joe Willis (Patrick Flueger, "The World's Fastest Indian"), the sole survivors. Their fates are unknown by American military and they're assumed dead. Two military death messengers appear at Grace's door to pass on the misinformation to the next of kin.

Intercutting with the family's grief and shock of Sam's death, and the slow coping with their loss, we follow the treatment Sam and Willis receive as they're kept in a makeshift underground hole, then sold to a warlord.

At home, Tommy develops responsibilities of an uncle toward the girls, diverting them from grief by his constant playful presence. As he discovers a joy in taking on this responsibility, a transformation takes hold. New bonds are formed, with beautiful Grace, as well.

The warlord plays with Sam's mind and sense of duty, ultimately forcing the stiff American to make a terrible moral choice. When rescue comes, and he returns home, emaciated and reduced by this cataclysmic event, he's been transformed, too. He has become the antithesis of what he was. He is by turns suspicious of his wife and brother and helpless to combat his fears. He has turned violent and ugly. Even his daughters want nothing to do with him, seeking instead the playful arms of their uncle.

In the Swedish version of the story, Nikolaj Lie Kaas' rough hewn size and a demeanor that spells violence couldn't be more appropriate to the role of a careless underachiever with a threatening edge. The fact that Gyllenhaal's softer nature makes him innately less threatening and therefore reduces the tension of the original version, it doesn't diminish the irony of the all-perfect one of the family turning into the dangerous one. The brother who breaks the dishes is the purported hero of the family, which is the sigularity of this drama. Which explains the impulse to bring it to a wider audience through an American remake.

Throughout the tides of emotion that the plot revolves around, the ace card is the wife's utter beauty and the chemistry of attraction--enough to render any two men into enemies. Jealousy, envy and distrust are bubbling toward an inevitable climax from the start, and Portman, in the Connie Nielsen role, effortlessly fills this intrinsic element with one of her fullest portrayals to date. Even the poster art, which shows the fine delicacy of her feeling in the gentle way she kisses her husband's back, tells us that she has something special going on that merits watching.

It doesn't hurt, either, that cinematographer Frederick Elmes ("Synecdoche, New York") exploits her sensuality at every opportunity (in the bathtub, in bed alone with her thoughts, etc.) with modeled, low-key lighting.

Sheridan, lauded for his ability to exact performances from young actors, as he did in "In America," elicits strong moments from 10-year old Bailee Madison that gives us a hint of a significant future. This being her fifteenth credit in a three-year career, with four credits yet to be released, tells us that this talent is way beyond being "discovered."

Sheridan, with a nicely-balanced ensemble cast and Bier's script, keeps us on our voyeuristic toes as he focuses his psychological spotlight into the dark battlefield effects on the "regular guys" we once knew. Yet, despite the greater familiarity we have with this cast, and Maguire's rising to the most explosive moment of his career outside his Spidy costume, there's a lightweightedness compared to Bier's original work with her foreign cast. I hate to suggest it, but maybe it's in the threat level of the male leads here who, in the final analysis, come across a bit too much as rising to the demands of their roles--not so much being the living essence of their characters.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Tobey Maguire and Jake Gyllenhaal
Brothers, in a change of understanding.

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