"Brothers" tells a very familiar story and follows an easily-guessed trajectory (no need to guess at all if you've seen the spoiler-heavy theatrical trailer, which gives away every last major plot development). From a narrative outlook, there are few surprises in this U.S. remake of the same-titled 2005 Danish film. What lifts the picture above the pedestrian, then, is the high level of talent in front of the camera. Every actor breathes an aching immediacy and life to the proceedings and to their characters. Though predictable, that doesn't stop it from also being enthralling; its 110-minute running time feels like half that length.
Just as Tommy Cahill (Jake Gyllenhaal) is released from his latest jail stint, older Marine brother Sam (Tobey Maguire) is about to ship out for duty in Afghanistan. No sooner has he left wife Grace (Natalie Portman) and daughters Isabelle (Bailee Madison) and Maggie (Taylor Geare) back home when word comes that Sam has been killed in a helicopter crash. As a devastated Grace tries to get a handle on the tragedy, her rocky relationship with Tommy softens as he gets closer to her kids. And then the unthinkable occurs: Grace learns that Sam is alive after all, saved from capture. The happy-go-lucky family man he once was, however, is no more by the time he returns. Haunted by an unthinkable act he was forced to commit to save his own life, Sam further unravels as he begins to suspect Grace and Tommy slept together while he was gone.
One of the pleasing things about "Brothers" is its complete lack of politics. Instead of choosing a side or bringing their own opinions into the mix, director Jim Sheridan (2003's "In America") and screenwriter David Benioff (2007's "The Kite Runner
") opt to narrow in on the familial drama of a man affected by the harsh emotional costs of war and the added struggles that his loved ones must face as a result. Political leanings simply do not play a part in it. This leaves the viewer to concentrate on the human tale being told, and it is one that gets points for its restraint. While Grace and Tommy do befriend one another and briefly kiss at one point, there is no huge love affair between them. Grace's heart is immediately with Sam again the second she is told that he is still alive. As for Tommy, who is struggling to mend his life after bouts with the law, he recognizes that Grace is off limits the moment they learn the truth about Sam's safety.
Sam, meanwhile, shields a secret that is destroying him from the inside out and could hurt acquaintances of his if they knew the truth. A flaw in the storytelling is revealing to the viewer what this secret is from the second it occurs; it might have added intrigue to a worn-out plot to keep the audience in the dark just as much as the other characters are. Nevertheless, the transformation that Sam goes through, both in appearance and personality, is astonishing, and so is the Tobey Maguire's (2007's "Spider-Man 3
") fearless, full-throttle performance. Naturally disarming and likable, Maguire begins the film as a non-superhero Peter Parker before transforming into a scary lost soul on the verge of snapping. When a birthday party for Maggie turns into a showcase for Isabelle to choose to act up, the mounting tension that occurs around the table as Sam continues to tell her to behave is frightening in its very stillness, knowledge that there is an explosion about to come certainly evident. Of the three leads, Maguire's turn is the one that resonates most with the viewer.
No slouches themselves, Natalie Portman (2008's "The Other Boleyn Girl
") and Jake Gyllenhaal (2007's "Zodiac
") are more than capable of carrying their respective weight. Actors of depth and intelligence, Portman imbues Grace with strength and tenderness in the eye of heartbreak, while Gyllenhaal never overdoes his archetypal role of the black sheep screw-up who can never measure up in his father's eyes. Speaking of fathers, Sam Shepard's (2007's "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
") role of patriarch Hank Cahill is one of typical gruffness, but he isn't a one-note monster; judgmental and hypocritical though he ishe had his own post-war troubles following his return from Namhe does love his sons and tries to be encouraging enough to Tommy to help him understand he's capable of doing more in life than what he has been. Finally, when children's performances can be touch and go in the world of film and television, Bailee Madison (2007's "Bridge to Terabithia
") and Taylor Geare (2008's "Four Christmases
") are phenomenal as Isabelle and Maggie. Always nothing less than natural and threatening to outshine their more experienced older co-stars, Madison and Geare know precisely how to break the viewer's heart.
Following a climax of big emotions and life-threatening confrontations, "Brothers" slows down and concludes with a shot of quiet human compassion. What happens, again, is decidedly predictable, but how it happens is appreciably low-key, hopeful but not tidy. Pictures of this ilk are numerous, from 1978's "Coming Home" to 1989's "Born on the Fourth of July" to 2008's "Stop-Loss
," but good, old-fashioned writing and acting can sometimes be enough to lift potentially mediocre material to something that is worthwhile and satisfying. Imagine that.