Sunday, December 6, 2009

A Few Thoughts on Brothers

First of all, when the helicopter carrying Captain Sam Cahill (Tobey Maguire) gets hit by a missile and goes down in a lake in Afghanistan, his family is told he is dead, and I don’t think the military would do that. I think they would say his helicopter went down in a lake in Afghanistan, and he is missing and presumed dead, but his body has not been found – an entirely different pronouncement.

Thus, Brothers starts rather early with a shaky premise that kept distracting me because at that point I wasn't grabbed by the story enough to forgive a shaky premise.

What follows is a story we’ve seen before, examining the psychological effects of war on a returning soldier – in this case a soldier returning from the current war in Afghanistan – and how his psychological torment comes between him and his family. And when a film covering some of the same ground as Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter and Hal Ashby’s Coming Home doesn’t deliver at least the same sort of emotional impact, I have trouble being engaged.

Certainly some of the acting is engaging enough. As Sam’s wife, Grace, Natalie Portman holds up the whole film with her portrayal of a woman devastated by war in two ways: first, she suffers the death of a husband and the father of her children; then, perhaps worse, she suffers as Sam returns to the family psychologically damaged by his experiences.

Tobey Maguire plays a convincingly tender-hearted father reduced to eye-bulging madness, while Jake Gyllenhaal, as Sam’s brother, Tom, spends most of his time acting disaffected: casting down his eyes, slouching, rolling his eyes at his father (Sam Shepard) who favors Sam, smirking at his own bad behavior, and not shaving. Gyllenhaal is never given much time to flesh out a clear back-story for his bitterness or to convince us that he and Sam are close. Carey Mulligan, as the wife of another soldier killed in the crash, doesn’t have much to do. In fact, her wordless first appearance is befuddling.

But the best performance comes from little Bailee Madison who plays Isabelle Cahill, Sam and Grace’s nine or ten-year-old daughter, an adult-child in the making, who is just old enough to recognize the changes in her tormented father and to express, through her rebellious behavior, that he is tearing the family apart. Jim Sheridan's direction of this young actress is the film's best achievement.

The film includes two genuinely intense scenes: one in which Isabelle builds tension during her sister’s birthday dinner, and another in which Captain Sam Cahill is forced by his Afghani captors to make a ghastly choice in order to save his life. Clearly, the film is about serious issues, but I was only briefly touched here and there by the seriousness of those issues.

Perhaps the film suffers by trying to tell a story in 112 minutes that probably needed more time. There is no time to build some tension leading up to the fateful crash. The helicopter takes off; then it crashes. There is no time to evoke an alien atmosphere in the Afghanistan scenes: we see some rugged that could be anywhere and some costumed extras holding AK-47s. I never felt there. There is no time to show a slower, more convincing transition leading to Sam’s return to his family; there’s no de-briefing, rehabilitation, delay. And there is no time to make us truly feel the supposed close bond between the eponymous brothers – which seems to be what the film is about.

As there is a minimalism to the middle-class setting in which the Cahills live (their austere kitchen has a stove standing in the middle of the floor), there is also a minimalism to some of the dialogue, but this cuts out needed development of Tom Cahill and his relationship with his brother. As for the cinematography, the movie seems filmed without any sort of aesthetic appreciation for the cinematic image. Perhaps the director didn’t want anything distracting the viewer from the seriousness of the story, but when that aspect of the film is not always very engaging, it’s nice to have something artistic to look at.


The Film Doctor said...

Nice review, Hokahey,

I meant to review the film, but you ended up expressing many of the points I would have made (although I liked the film more, mostly due to the acting). I agree that Gyllenhaal's character could use further development. I never got the strong sense that he was the robber type, but it's hard not to enjoy three masterful younger actors competing with each other. Also, didn't you like Sam Shepard?

Your point about the unlikeliness of the military calling Tobey's character dead is well taken. It makes the whole film seem like it was built on a narrative gimmick.

Richard Bellamy said...

Thanks, FilmDr. In the final analysis, I did like Sam Shepard. He kind of played a stock character: military father who does not approve of wastrel son - but he did a good job of showing how he loved Tom but he just couldn't talk to him.

I am a very receptive audience for any movie about the effects of war - a favorite topic of mine - so I was very open to this movie and I did like the acting - especially Portman, Maguire, and the little girl. Just, something about the movie as a whole felt inadequate.

Fletch said...

Funny that you mention there being possibly not enough time to tell the story (or at least get us engaged with the emotions and the characters), since all I've been saying about the film is that this is one of those cases that definitely falls into the "If you've seen the trailer, you've seen the film" trap. There's literally nothing in the film not covered by the trailer, save for perhaps the father/sons dynamic (which never really gets resolved anyway).

A case of the performances overshadowing the finished product big time.

Richard Bellamy said...

You're right, Fletch. There's not much more in the film than in the preview (which gives way too much away) and yet so much of it cries out for more development. Totally agree with you that the performances overshadow the end product. I was disappointed.