The word "melodrama" doesn't have much currency in movies these days, but in its best moments Brothers proves that the old genre can feel alive and well when done right. Even without major insight on its subject matter, the movie carries emotional heft thanks to stronger-than-usual performances from two of the leads and a quiet, intuitive handling of the homefront effects of war. Coming so soon after Oren Moverman's superior and similarly themed The Messenger, Brothers sometimes feels unnecessarily Hollywood, but there's a surprising amount of truth in there as well.
Living somewhere in the wintry heart of America, Grace (Natalie Portman) and Sam (Tobey Maguire) are your basic perfect couple, high school sweethearts blessed with two adorable daughters (Bailee Madison and Taylor Geare), a cozy and old-fashioned home, and Sam's career as an Army Captain. Sam is preparing to ship out to Afghanistan just as his younger brother Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal) is being released from a brief prison stint; it's clear during one particularly tense dinner which son dad (Sam Shepard) favor, and Grace is quick to rebuff Tommy's reluctant attempts at friendship as well.
That all changes, though, when Sam's helicopter crashes in the Afghan desert, and Grace pulls Tommy closer to her as both cope with a giant new hole in their lives. As Sam, actually alive, struggles to survive in a POW camp, Tommy takes the girls ice skating and helps Grace remodel her kitchen, not so much as an attempt to to be with her as to craft some kind of family of his own. When Sam finally returns, having done horrible things in Afghanistan to ensure his own survival, what's intended to be a triumphant reunion becomes a series of paranoid glances and regrets, culminating in the kind of emotional explosions that feels a little over the top, yes, but also undeniably possible.
Director Jim Sheridan is as excellent with the two child actresses as he was with real-life sisters in In America, but he's also got a nice touch with Gyllenhaal and Portman in the homefront scenes, coaxing out of both of them exceptional performances. While not entirely convincing as a grizzled ex-con, Gyllenhaal digs deep in his twitchy, distrustful character, and changes visibly as he becomes more comfortable in his surrogate father role. Portman, looking like a grown-up almost for the first time, is steadfast and close to brilliant as the rock-steady Grace; even when the world is collapsing all around her, Portman never reaches for the high emotion, but lets it arrive to her instead.
The weak link among the three is certainly Maguire, charged with the nearly impossible task of portraying a perfect good-guy who unravels into an angry beast. In the Afghanistan scenes, with Sam in pure survival mode, Maguire works surprisingly well as a gruff commander who thinks quick on his feet. And during Sam's first few days at home, when everything feels suddenly unfamiliar, it's easy to believe that there's coiled rage behind nearly everything Sam says or does. But when it comes time for the inevitable breakdown, promoted heavily in the trailers, Maguire simply isn't up for it. Nothing in the film has led up to this kind of climax either, and when a movie that has previously relied on small moments and subtle editing suddenly explodes, it takes Maguire down with it.
But despite moments in the film in which Sheridan seems to simply be cribbing, not expanding on, earlier war movies (including, probably, Susanne Bier's Danish film of the same name), Brothers is willing to take its own path often enough that it feels rewarding as a whole. Filmed without fuss and relying on performances that largely deliver, it's a simple adult drama with a story that needs to be told. Even absent perfection, that's worth something.