Based on a 2004 Danish film about a man sent to war in Afghanistan (hundreds of our allies are from Denmark) and the burgeoning relationship between a troublesome brother back home and the soldier's wife, Brothers is a simple tale. It's a "coming home" drama which Hollywood has covered thoroughly since Vietnam — mixed with the lethal sibling tension that's been a recurring theme in literature for thousands of years.
A film with such basic elements requires an experienced filmmaker who knows how to coax freshness out of hiding and help the story find its own legs. By that measure, Irish master Jim Sheridan is a caretaker par excellence. Brothers brushes the surface of elements that Sheridan has already dug deep in: torture, injustice and the fragility of brotherhood (In the Name of the Father); a troubled ex-con (The Boxer) and siblings under duress (In America).
Sheridan's stellar past work informs and uplifts Brothers and brings out some of the best performances of the year and, in the case of Tobey Maguire as the Marine brother and Natalie Portman as his wife, the best of their careers. Just before he's to be shipped to Afghanistan, Capt. Sam Cahill (Maguire) picks up his brother Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal) from prison. Tommy seems to be on a path of self-destruction that would take an earth-shattering event to right. That event comes when Sam's helicopter goes down and he's presumed dead. Back home, Tommy is shaken straight and takes up handiwork around his brother's house and, eventually, playtime with Sam's kids.
Meanwhile, Sam and a fellow soldier are being tortured in a prisoner camp in the caves of Afghanistan. Sam is put to the test with months of malnutrition and mental torment. When his rescue comes, his menacing, gaunt expression and steely eyes tell us (and his grateful family back home) that something is amiss. Sam can't adjust to his old life, especially his daughters (as the oldest, 10-year-old actress Bailee Madison shows natural instinct), and things spiral downward in raw, primal fashion.
Gyllenhaal, as the brother left to clean up the mess, again proves he's one of the finest actors working today, with a turn that flirts with many levels of melodrama but always stays at a realistic keel. When he reminds Sam at various stages, "I'm your brother," he delivers it fully loaded with subtext — sometimes as comfort, other times as an accusation.
Maguire and Portman were both blessed with preternatural emotive ability at an early age but have struggled to play adults. Here Portman takes a step toward believability as a parent, while Maguire chews up the screen as the proud offspring of a military man. Maguire's presence, whether trance-like, hesitantly warm or explosively dangerous, fills every room he enters. — Justin Strout