Susanne Bier’s emotionally harrowing melodrama about the toll of war on the home front has become a lesser thing in Jim Sheridan’s English-language remake of “Brothers.” Though it renders a convincing portrait of fractured family life and boasts its share of powerfully acted moments, this schematic tale of two siblings, ripped apart by jealousy, misunderstanding and unshakable trauma, plays like a more polished but less effective twin to the 2004 Danish original. The names of Tobey Maguire, Natalie Portman and Jake Gyllenhaal should lure a respectable arthouse/mainstream contingent to this solidly accessible, admirably serious yet not entirely realized picture.
Adapted by David Benioff from Bier and Anders Thomas Jensen’s script, “Brothers” faithfully retains its predecessor’s structure almost scene for scene. One unfortunate departure occurs at the outset, as Capt. Sam Cahill (Maguire), preparing to join his fellow Marines on a fourth tour of duty in Afghanistan circa October 2007, writes a letter (partially read in voiceover) to be given to his wife in the event of his death — a device that foreshadows yet also sentimentalizes much of what’s to come.
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Shortly before Sam ships out, his petty-crook younger brother, Tommy (Gyllenhaal), is released from prison, leading to an awkward homecoming as the Cahill clan welcomes back one son and sends off another. The fraught yet all-too-familiar dynamics are bluntly established as Sam and Tommy’s gruff dad (Sam Shepard) makes no secret of his preference for the decorated military hero over the scruffy ne’er-do-well.
Sam’s loving wife, Grace (Portman), with whom he has two daughters, isn’t too crazy about Tommy, either. But when tragedy strikes and Sam is presumed dead in a helicopter crash, Tommy gets his act together and becomes an unexpected source of strength and emotional ballast to Grace as the family mourns, remodeling her kitchen and doting on young Isabelle (Bailee Madison) and Maggie (Taylor Geare).
It’s no spoiler to reveal that while Grace and Tommy bond over U2 and cigarettes, Sam is alive, if not well, in Afghanistan, where he and another soldier (Patrick Flueger) are held captive by Taliban fighters. Sam is ultimately rescued, but his experiences have not left him unscarred or his home unchanged. Emotionally cold toward his girls and irrationally suspicious of Grace and Tommy, Sam directs his pain both inward and outward, building to the film’s most riveting scene — a dinner-party sequence in which Sheridan and editor Jay Cassidy bring a small storm of repressed tensions and domestic anxieties shockingly to the surface.
Pic crosscuts more convulsively between home and Afghanistan than Bier’s film did; while this is perhaps intended to ratchet up the tension and make Sam’s wounds accrue more gradually, it serves only to throw the script’s contrivances into high relief. Moreso than in the Danish picture, one senses a God-like (or Guillermo Arriaga-like) hand at work, stretching across continents to move these poor characters into their tortured positions.
The stylistic differences between the two films are even more pronounced. Shot with a restless handheld camera, Bier’s “Brothers” achieved a fleet, Dogma-inflected realism that tempered the melodrama; Sheridan’s “Brothers” is an altogether more calculated object, with its meticulous setups, meaningful pauses and young, attractive Hollywood cast.
Still, that cast largely impresses. Portman has rarely been more movingly subdued as a wife and mother who refuses to let grief overpower her sense of responsibility, while Gyllenhaal is effortlessly believable as a drifter who finds, to his delight and ours, that fatherhood suits him well. Sheridan’s empathetic touch with tyke actresses, so evident in 2003’s “In America,” pays off beautifully in his work with young Madison, who’s heartbreaking as the older and wiser of the two Cahill girls.
With his crew cut and stiff posture (in contrast to Gyllenhaal’s looser stance), Maguire is downright scary as a guy who seems to be headed the way of Pvt. Pyle in “Full Metal Jacket.” But he still looks a tad boyish for the part (Ulrich Thomsen was in his 40s when he played the role for Bier), and his decision to go explosively over-the-top at moments only exposes Sam as a psychological construct — more walking antiwar statement than full-blooded human being.
Even when the dramatic carpentry is less than sturdy, the filmmaking remains precise and assured; Sheridan’s maiden collaboration with ace d.p. Fred Elmes delivers sterling widescreen results, with New Mexico doing double duty as small-town America and Afghanistan.
A plaintive guitar theme grounds Thomas Newman’s score, though other soundtrack choices are more intrusive. Closing credits are accompanied by U2’s “Winter,” which is apt considering the thick, presumably cleansing snow that blankets the film’s final chapters.