Brothers (2009) dir. Jim Sheridan
Starring: Tobey Maguire, Jake Gyllenhaal, Natalie Portman, Sam Shepard
By Alan Bacchus
I usually hate it when people critique a movie in comparison to its original source material – ie. A book, or comic, or in this case, another movie. After all, the original is always better than remake, an elitist attitude which can be alienating to those approaching it fresh. But it’s impossible not to make the comparison especially when the original film is so dear to one’s heart. For years Susanne Bier’s ‘Brothers’ was one of those overlooked gems I kept recommending to people. It’s a devastating film and a showcase for not only Bier, but writer Anders Thomas Jensen and its three lead actors, specifically Nikolaj Lie Kaas, who plays the Jake Gyllenhaal role.
But the fact is, it’s a story more suited as an American film than Danish, so there’s very little adjustments necessary to adapt it for US audiences and thus, I could not help comparing it to the original. Tobey Maguire plays Sam Cahill, a respected military man with a stabile and loving family who is about to be shipped off to war in Afghanistan, a mission Sam wholeheartedly believes in. Before he leaves he says goodbye to his little brother Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal), the family fuck-up recently released from prison.
But while fighting, the worst happens and Tommy dies, thus leaving his wife, Grace (Natalie Portman), a widow and single mother to her two daughters. And so, stepping in is Tommy, who discovers an innate need to nurture and becomes surrogate father to the absent Sam. It’s a relationship that even borders on inappropriate when an innocent kiss threatens to cross boundaries within the family. But miraculously Sam is discovered to be alive and returns back home after a harrowing ordeal of punishment and torture at the hands of Al Qaida soldiers. At home, he finds the addition of Tommy to the family order a threat, and when morphed by the psychological damage of war it results in a mental breakdown with violent consequences.
Jim Sheridan’s direction is more functional than anything else, even admitting on the DVD special features that his job was not to mess it up. But there’s a conscious attempt to distance itself from the handheld, intrusive dogma-style filmmaker of Suzanne Bier and make it his own. Sheridan’s ‘Brothers’ is classical and elegant, and, in general, smooths over the edginess of the material for a broader audience. Even the casting of familiar Hollywood faces like Maguire, Gyllenhaal, Portman, Shepard are safe risk-free directorial choices.
So, here we go with this same ol argument.. the few moments Sheridan does decide to muck up the story unfortunately doesn’t work. Sheridan adds a deeper history of the military into Tommy and Sam’s family. In this version Sam’s father is a Vietnam vet who is too emotionally distant to connect and provide comfort for his son. But the effect of this relationship on Sam’s breakdown is only grazed and never adequately reconciled or addressed, which becomes an unnecessary distraction from the core relationship of brother-to-brother.
The climactic moment of confrontation and violence at Sam’s house is missing the nerve racking suspense Bier injected into this scene. As dramatized by Sheridan, when Sam starts trashing the kitchen, thus frightening Grace and the children, the threat is never elevated beyond personal self-destruction. We never feel the kids or even Grace herself is in danger. Tommy’s appearance in the scene is unmotivated, showing up at the right time. In Bier’s film Sam’s wife calls Tommy (aka Jannik) for help, thus giving Tommy/Jannik his own act of heroism. And chiefly missing from Sheridan’s climax is the most heartbreaking moment in the movie, the violent fight between brother and brother.
But for viewers who haven’t seen the film, I imagine this American version would still be powerful experience. So maybe Sheridan’s treatment of the film has done the original justice, for newbies to the story, the core conflicts and relationships of Anders Thomas Jensen’s original screenplay are there and his characters are brought to life by adequately believable actors. It’s only Jake Gyllenhaal’s shy, pretty boy good looks, which fail to match Nikolaj Lie Kaas’s astounding performance anchor of the original film. For this reason, Susanne Bier's 'Brothers' still the movie to see.
‘Brothers’ is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Alliance Films in Canada
Here's the original film trailer: