The first hurdle in Brothers is believing that Tobey Maguire and Jake Gyllenhaal, who play the titular sibs, could be related by blood. The second is believing that Natalie Portman could be an Army wife and mother of two. That leaves the movie’s third hurdle, which relates to its ambition in portraying simultaneous story lines in the deserts of Afghanistan and the suburbs of Santa Fe.
Setting aside those distractions, Brothers is both a family drama and a raw exposé of the price of war paid far from the battlefield. The film, which arrives Friday, stars Maguire as Capt. Sam Cahill -- aka the good son -- and Gyllenhaal as his bad-boy brother Tommy, who we meet upon his release from jail. The Cahill family dynamic is quickly apparent: At Tommy’s welcome-home dinner, Daddy maliciously compares his petty theft to the heroics of Sam, who’s about to get shipped off to fight. Sam’s wife Grace (Portman), meanwhile, never liked Tommy in the first place.
Everything changes, though, when Sam’s chopper goes down in Afghanistan and he’s presumed dead. As Tommy steps up to support Grace, he begins to step out from Sam’s shadow and come into his own as a dimpled mensch with a good sense of humor. Soon, Uncle Tommy is doing everything from painting rooms to playing with his nieces in the snow, and even Grace is giggling again as they all goof around at the ice rink.
While the Cahills settle into their new roles and spend evenings by the hearth, back in Afghanistan, Sam isn’t really dead: Captured by enemy forces, we watch as he’s forced to commit a gruesome atrocity before his fellow Marines come to the rescue. Brothers attempts to capture the parallel stories, taking us from cozy to terrifying and back again. The contrast between them is surreal -- which may be part of the point. When Sam returns a damaged man, his anguish is palpable as his inner turmoil turns violent.
Having seen his ordeal on enemy turf, it’s easy to comprehend his sense of alienation. Still, finding empathy for Sam is a tall order, especially when life with Uncle Tommy is so much more fun. It’s also tough to find feelings for Grace, largely because her role is to simply react, serving largely as a fixture around whom the men play out their ingrained dynamic and new conflicts.
Brothers’ disjointed, tepid effect could stem from the fact that it’s a remake. Based on Susanne Bier’s Danish film, Brødre (2004), it bears many of the hallmarks of her film’s Dogme style, which eschews special effects, among other tenets. Jim Sheridan’s American version achieves a similarly stark beauty in places but reaches for compelling tension, particularly with performances that strive to overcome a stilted script. As a complete picture, Brothers comes close to gripping, but doesn’t quite add up to the sum of its parts.