The remake of the Danish film Brødre is the latest in a steady stream of films set against the backdrop of the war in Afghanistan. Amongst these there has yet to be any stand-out film, one that will become the definitive cinematic account of the home front for this conflict, as The Deer Hunter has become for Vietnam. Brothers is not going to be this film. Whilst it is indeed a worthy effort, it seems content to sit somewhere in the middle, producing a film that is solid, but in the end unremarkable.
Tobey Maguire and Jake Gyllenhaal play the brothers Sam and Tommy respectively. Polar opposites, Sam is a decorated Marine, a loving husband and father, whilst Tommy is fresh out of prison and wanders aimlessly through life. But when Sam is shot down and presumed dead in Afghanistan their roles begin to reverse. Back home Tommy steps into his brother’s shoes, whilst the order of Sam’s perfect life begins to break down as he is tortured both physically and mentally. When he is eventually freed and returns home he is a visibly changed man, and now it is Sam rather than Tommy who starts to create conflict within the family.
The first half of the film is divided between the stories of the two brothers. We watch the parallel development of Sam and Tommy as they face two very different challenges. However, Sam’s captivity and breakdown are given relatively little screentime compared to what we see of Tommy as he rises to the occasion. This leaves the key moment, where his resolve finally breaks with devastating results, appearing all too suddenly.
Whilst Tommy’s development is allowed to occur gradually, Sam’s has to take place in a far shorter space of time, making it a lot less convincing. When Maguire’s character finally returns home, the focus shifts back onto him, which is a shame given that Gyllenhaal provides by far the more engaging performance.
So, while it may have been Maguire who clinched the Golden Globe nomination, I was somewhat unconvinced by his portrayal of a traumatised solider trying to readjust to family life. In this respect his performance seemed to consist of an intense stare, helped along with some uncharacteristic lines and a bit of make-up, all of which combined to make him appear lobotomised more than anything else.
He lacked the subtlety required to portray such a complex state of mind. Indeed, the only point at which I found him at all convincing was when Sam completely breaks down, giving him free-range to shout and smash up the furniture.
In what is clearly a character-driven film the weak link is very much Maguire, whose performance does not meet the demands placed upon him by the writers. It is a shame then that Gyllenhaal, though he is given the chance to shine for the first half of the film or so, is then scandalously under-used as we progress. In the end, even Gyllenhaal’s accomplished performance is not quite enough to propel this otherwise rather forgettable film beyond mediocrity.