Based on the 2004 Danish film, Brodre, Brothers tells the story of a man (Tobey Maguire) who goes off to Iraq to defend his country as well as the wife (Natalie Portman) and family he leaves behind, including his recently-released con-brother (Jake Gyllenhaal). At first, it’s a little bizarre seeing these actors play such “grown-up” roles. Despite their real ages, Maguire (34), who 7 years ago was playing high school student Peter Parker, and Portman (28) don’t seem comfortable in the roles of spouse and parent. Then again, maybe that’s the point of the characters. Maguire’s is a Captain of the Marines, who, knowing full well that he may go on a mission and never return, would be inclined to go ahead and get married to his high-school sweetheart. Nevertheless, he does love them dearly, and thinks of nothing but returning to them when his helicopter is shot out of the air.
With even the slightest inclination of what this movie is about, we know that Captain Maguire survives, and eventually comes back. Regardless, by the time his alleged death rolls around, we are invested enough in the characters that we are able to react as though he really is dead. The scenes we’ve seen a thousand times before (two uniformed officers come to the door, the now-widow comforts her children at their father’s funeral) somehow overcome their familiarity and manage to resonate.
Now here’s where things get messy. In her grief and loneliness, widow Portman welcomes con-brother-in-law Gyllenhaal into her home. There, he redeems his implied, but unstated, crimes by rebuilding her kitchen, and otherwise taking on a parental role with the kids.
Before we go any further, these are the two cutest children I have ever seen in a movie. They are Play-Doh for the camera, able to take on whatever shape (grieving, playful, prematurely insightful, tragically distant) the story requires of them. In every scene they’re in, they are the icing on the cake, and as long as you don’t try to find any consistency from scene-to-scene, they are a joy to watch.
Moving on with the story, there is a seemingly inevitable attraction that sprouts up between the remaining siblings-in-law. Mostly set-up through cutesy dates (all in the name of spending time with the kids, of course), the two go skating, goof around, and even share a kiss after a night of drinking and pot-smoking. Meanwhile, the Captain is enduring in the Iraqi desert, undergoing torture, and being forced into morally murky (as well as psychically destructive) actions. When he, much to everyone’s (except ours) surprise, returns, he is not the same man who left. He has witnessed and done things that have affected him on a deeply troubling level while the rest of the world has gone on without him.
It’s impossible to decide who is more deserving of sympathy when the returning Captain is unable to re-acclimatize himself to his white-picket fence life. The things that previously mattered, like the fanciful flights of his daughters, are beneath trivial, they are irritating. Then there’s the under-lying suspicion he has for his brother and wife’s relationship. Their attraction, or, at the very least, familiarity, becomes a fixation for Maguire as his Post-Traumatic Stress increases. Even more disturbingly, the situation continues to escalate. The more distanced from his family he feels, the more they pull away from him, making the reconciliation that much less attractive. For a man who has been through hell to get back to his family, this is unbearable. The incompatibility screams off the screen. We’ve invested in watching a blossoming relationship, and we feel guilt as we, along with the children, secretly wish that things could go back to how they were before. We then feel terrible about ourselves, and try to sympathize with the soldier, who, now feeling this rejection, has turned to drastic measures.
There are no easy answers in Brothers, although the movie seems to think that there ought to be. In some parts, things feel too easy, too uncomplicated, such as when the step-brother and the “widow” are building their friendlationship. There is rarely any mention of the “deceased” brother, and their kiss is summed up as a simple case of missing that member of the family. Because I know that when I miss someone, particularly my brother, my first thought is to get fresh with his wife. This is not to say that we can’t understand the attraction, it’s just that it’s so Hollywood-ly constructed, and then tossed aside when the narrative focus returns to Captain Tobey. Everyone just agrees that the sort-of fling was inappropriate and moves ahead with their lives, simply picking out the best parts of the arrangement and dropping all of the complicated ones.
Thankfully, the ending doesn’t give in to this same wishful thinking, and it allows for the idea that things may not get better. There’s certainly a glimmer of opportunity for the Captain to overcome his disassociation, but it, mercifully, doesn’t say for sure. Rather than allying with one brother (a word that gets said way too many times in the last act) or the other, the conclusion we get is that if not for war and the trauma it inflicts, none of this would have happened. If watched in the right light, Brothers is a pretty effective criticism of the war-based culture that seems to exist in America. Then again, if this movie has taught me anything, it’s that the answer is never that easy.