Brothers (Jim Sheridan, USA, 2009)
I have a soft spot for Jim Sheridan. When I started out watching films in the early 1990s, his My Left Foot and In the Name of the Father were significant films for me. I have no idea what I would think of them were I to see them again. By chance, when I was in Manhattan, New York City in December 2003, the first film I watched was Sheridan's In America about his own arrival in the Big Apple some years earlier. I didn't think it was a great film, but I enjoyed it for what it is and related to the experience of arriving in the same unique city.
I could say that Brothers is a disappointment, but despite using some pretty big cliches and being overtly manipulative, it's actually a damn fine movie for it's intended (mainstream) audience. The film is itself a remake of a film of the same title (Brødre/Brothers, Susanne Bier) which screened at MIFF a few years ago and I think also had a later limited release. I haven't seen the original but as this film unfolded, I recognised the plot and vaguely recalled seeing the trailer. All this was a little distracting, but I tried to put that out of my mind.
I suppose the problem for me was that I knew what was coming. Ultimately though, I don't think this is really an issue because the film is so contrived that you can pretty much predict where it's going to go. As some supporters of Scorsese's Shutter Island have validly pointed out, it's not a fault to know where the film is going - it's watching how expertly it gets there. I won't compare Sheridan's film with Scorsese, but the point has some validity here.
What makes the film so damn watchable is that it has three of the best young America actors of their generation: Tobey Maguire, Jake Gyllenhaal and Natalie Portman. Now, I've had about as much fascination with Portman as I have with Mélanie Laurent (Inglourious Basterds), ie, a lot. I love how Portman has great presence without any embellishment. She's no big-bosomed babette, but she has a real charm that exudes intelligence and attitude. She's used very well in Brothers as the wife of a soldier (Maguire) deployed in Afghanistan. There is one occasion where I thought she was unnecessarily dolled up, but fortunately it wasn't excessive.
Gyllenhaal plays the loser brother who fills a gap in the family's life when the marine brother doesn't return from duty. Unknown to everyone, he's alive and being tortured by the Taliban, only to return later a very damaged man. Now, a mainstream audience is going to love this film when it's released next week (I was at a MIFF members' free screening. A plug for MIFF here - if you're not a member, you get invites to half a dozen or more of these each year).
I'd like to point out three events in the film that had my eyes rolling, that place the film clearly in the mainstream sphere. These details shouldn't bother the target audience, but they bothered me. I really had to suspend my critical faculties in order to enjoy the film (which I still did because, well, I suspended my critical faculties - duh). I'm not going to be specific but when you see the film, you'll know what I'm talking about.
1). While captured, Maguire's character does something shocking. It didn't seem plausible to me, but it's central to the rest of the story.
2). At a family gathering, the six year old daughter says something to her father that a child of that age could not possibly know to say.
3. A letter is written at the start of the film, and the timing of its opening really brings to mind soppy melodramas like The Notebook and Dear John (though I confess to having seen neither).
In spite of these three events, and in spite of some pretty heavy-handed use of soundtrack music, each of these three actors (and Sam Shepard in a good support role) are so convincing that I could buy into the story. A strong element of the film is that it's a story about people, about relationships. War is what is imposed on them and affects their relationships; the film is not an overt critique on the so-called war on terror. For that I applaud it, though you can read between the lines any way you like. War is not a nice thing.