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The anti-war film has long been a powerful tool in the movie business, bringing audiences closer to the horrors and drama of conflict from large-scale, history-changing battles to deeply personal accounts of bravery, courage, fear, and damage both physically mentally. Brothers explores the latter with a career-defining performance and while the film overall feels a bit too clean and structured, it has great effect in capturing the despair and guilt of a man forever changed by his own actions. It is a story of forgiveness but one that doesn’t come easy for those in need.
It follows the tragedy of U.S. Marine Sam Cahill (Tobey Maguire), thought shot down and killed in action over Afghanistan in his fourth tour of duty. He spends months as a prisoner in an isolated mountain camp with another soldier, a hometown friend, both tortured and made to do unspeakable things, Sam in particular. He is eventually rescued but suppresses memories of a violent act that has permanently scarred him. Returning to normality is impossible.
There is also Tommy Cahill (Jake Gyllenhaal), Sam’s brother. He has travelled a different path. Just before Sam shipped off, he had been released from jail, serving time for armed robbery. He is a changed man, solemn and forlorn, a black sheep serving as the polar opposite of his much-praised brother, especially in the eyes of their father (Sam Shepard) who has clear disdain for Tommy. This bears significant weight.
Between the brothers is Grace (Natalie Portman), Sam’s wife and high school sweetheart who has given him two daughters. After she and the family are informed that Sam’s helicopter was shot down and no word heard, dealing with his loss puts great strain on her and the children. Tommy, seeking redemption, offers to be there for her, tending to the house, even rebuilding her kitchen and earning a trust that she had previously refused. Both in states of mourning and need, soon find themselves drawn to each other and the film shares a deeply passionate kiss that they both immediately regret. We are not invited to learn if the relationship becomes sexual, though this suspicion will be cause for conflict when Sam returns.
Based on the 2004 Danish film Brødre by Susanne Bier, Brothers splits its narrative in two, showcasing the mending efforts of Grace and Tommy to move on with their lives after believing Sam is dead, intercut with Sam’s mentally debilitating mistreatment at the hands of his captors. It is these harrowing moments as Sam and Private Joe Willis (Patrick John Flueger) are forced to make videos condemning the U.S. military intervention though Joe is unable to resist the torture and is eventually deemed useless. This leads Sam being forced to commit an unconscionable act that will forever break him.
There is a moment when all of these elements collide of course. It is a challenging sequence that reveals the great personal depths of Maguire’s commitment to Sam where he faces the demons of his past while confronting the truths of his present. Sitting in the dark with a crowbar, Sam is tormented by unwavering guilt and suspicion. Joe’s fate in Afghanistan has left him so shaken, he is barely functional. Combined with his belief that Grace has cheated on him with Tommy, and he is now dangerous. With Grace watching in fear and desperation, he stands in the newly-renovated kitchen and begins to smash the cupboards and counters with the crowbar, screaming of the horrors he suffered to get back to her.
It’s metaphorical of course, as well as literal, as Sam destroys the room. It is also reflective of Joe, the fellow prisoner, and harkens to a pivotal moment that has ultimately shaped Sam. As he violently dismantles anything he can reign damage upon, he roars about his love for and the also the savages he committed with own hands. It’s an unnerving moment and Maguire shines as he rages, giving us a look at a side of the actor we’ve never seen.
There’s also a sterility to the moment that feels a bit too designed as Maguire moves about the kitchen, looking as if following directions for where to cause mayhem, reaching for things to break simply for the sake of breaking them as if the set was made specifically for these things to be wrecked in the scene. It’s a little distracting as his performance is so engrossing, but it doesn’t overshadow his work. Ultimately, it is the character’s struggle with self-forgiveness (a theme both brothers struggle with) that make for Maguire’s best work. His casting goes against type as his physical stature doesn’t align with what most movie audience project when thinking of war heroes. Maguire uses that to continually surprise and digs deep to deliver a truly moving performance that should not missed.