Brothers – A Family Affair

It’s no secret, of course, that I am a Gyllenhaalic. This does have its disadvantages when trying to offer up a review of a movie with Jake Gyllenhaal in it. Not much to do about that so I’ll just try and do my best while also being rather pleased that my first review for this site is for a film called Brothers.

This ‘review’ is spoilery and so please stop here if you have yet to see the film.


Brothers surprises. It has been promoted as a war movie or even as a horror movie. But what you have here is a drama about family and that inevitably means a mass of conflicting moods and emotions as each member of that family tries to cope with something as terrible as the loss of a son, brother, husband, father in war. And so life carries on while a wife cannot sleep and a father drinks and a brother tries to do make amends by fixing a kitchen and building a snowman and trying to comfort a wife who cannot believe her husband is dead. ‘I’d have felt it’ she says. She was right, the husband wasn’t dead, he was lost.


The success of Brothers is due in my opinion to its actors. The calibre of actors is astonishing. For me, the talent of the young actors here has not been in doubt but their selection of movies has been. At last, for Tobey Maguire, I can get past the Spider-Man label and finally I can forget Natalie Portman’s part in the Star Wars prequels. Here we have actors grown up and given material they can work with while drawing sparks from their contemporaries and friends. Jake Gyllenhaal, at the risk of sounding biased, which I am, is not an actor who needs to prove himself. His only drawback is the logjam of delayed and postponed movies under his belt, meaning that we have not seen what he can do for the last two years. A pity, as he can do a lot.


The Cahill family is hardly functional but it is tight. Therefore, we have the horror and brutality of Afghanistan set against the ‘life trying to carry on’ scenes at home, which propose that there can be hope, normality, even a future. Tommy Cahill and his Three Amigos build a kitchen, Tommy twirls on ice with his nieces and this wayward brother even plucks up courage to apologise to the woman he traumatised during the crime that locked him in prison.

As a Jake fan, I must enjoy the frivolous moments in the bar, wanting to touch the nose, and the scenes of Jake skating with the children, throwing snowballs at the children and being there to play with them – while their father was lost and also when he returned and frightened them. This comic turn of Jake’s isn’t often seen to be enjoyed.


Jake Gyllenhaal’s larger than life earnestness and care dominates much of Brothers and it is wonderful to watch. Tobey Maguire by contrast has to make us understand the depths that men may sink to when there is no choice. I was surprised that I liked Sam Cahill as much as I did, but, following his journey, it would be unfair not to. Natalie Portman grows up here before our eyes. A cheerleader army wife who kisses a brother to taste her husband’s lips. It’s complex. Life is. Grief is.

The scenes that shine for me the most are those between Tommy and the children. Bailee Madison’s lip trembles at an extraordinary rate but you can’t help but feel for this little girl when she apologises to her mother for what she told her father.


A motif throughout the film is one of drowning. Sam had saved both Tommy and Joe from lakes. Finally, it’s Sam telling Tommy that he’s drowning and Tommy has a chance to pull him up for air and breath life into his brother. This is a family that finds it far easier to communicate through tattoos than spoken words. But finally, when there’s no other option, there’s no choice.

4 Responses to Brothers – A Family Affair

  1. Paola says:

    I saw the movie yesterday (in original version, subtitled in Italian) and so I felt now ‘safe’ to come here and read your review that I knew it would be spoilerish… I agree a lot with your views on the film and the performances.
    A critic said “Jake is superb at channeling his confused feelings into physical awkwardness” and I think the ‘stuttering’ style he displays at various moments in the film works particularly well here. It’s not gratuitous or overdone. There is a nice chemistry between him and the two young girls, maybe a little less so between him and Natalie Portman. It’s not Natalie’s fault, I don’t think – she’s a very talented actress – but perhaps the script wasn’t ‘daring’ enough for Natalie and Jake to fulfil their potential, in that I think the sexual chemistry between Tommy and Grace seemed to have been downplayed, as the focus shifts to Sam, the horrific things he had to witness and do in Afghanistan, with all the trauma and paranoia following his return to his family.
    I haven’t seen the Danish film, but I read in a review that although, like in the Sheridan movie, there was no graphic sex between the Grace and Tommy characters, who didn’t go beyond a kiss, the two characters did seem to share some unspoken sexual tension. One is left to wonder whether Jim Sheridan or the scriptwriter preferred to downplay any possible sexual tension for fear of alienating American audiences, especially as the film deals with the sensitive issue of patriotism, American lives lost abroad and war-torn families.
    Another thing I wished had been explored a little more in the Sheridan film are the daily lives of those left at home: what does Grace do for a living? We know what Tommy did, that put him in prison, but when he’s not sleeping on Grace’s couch, where does he live? He’s shown spending the first night out of jail in a run-down hotel, so we have to assume that’s where he thinks of living until he finds a better place?
    The relationship between Sam and Tommy seems solid, they seem to share a deep bond, despite their differences. It’s clear from various tiny details that each loves the other very much and is prepared to stand up for the other if needed. Which is a nice contrast to the defiant and antagonistic attitude their father has towards Tommy, at least in the first part of the film. I think the film does an excellent job of depicting the sort of inevitable tranformation each of the brothers go through in response to life events outside their control. First Tommy was the black sheep, the one squirming at the dinner table, who then slowly gets his act together, takes more responsiblity for himself and his brother’s family left behind; while Sam, the one with the perfect family, highly regarded by his dad, by his superior officers etc. goes through hell and inevitably becomes a shell of his former self, tormented by ‘survivor’ guilt and paranoia.

    As I said, the Tommy/Grace relationship seems a little downplayed, but the film doesn’t lack emotional resonance, not only in how Sam is shown to cope with his post-traumatic stress, but even more startingly in showing how Sam and Grace’s little girls cope with the presumed loss of their father, and later with his comeback. There is an emotional ‘truth’ to the scenes involving the little girls, which I found mesmerising.

    The scenes with Sam Shepard are heavy-handed, I thought, and a bit cliched. I’m not saying there was no emotional truth in them, but perhaps by now I’ve seen too many ‘war’ films about Vietnam veterans and the like, and about deep-rooted conflict between fathers and sons. Shepard’s main role is establishing his love and pride for one of his sons, and – very schematically – his disdain for his other son, the ex-con. He’s a fine actor and I wish he’d been given more material and a slightly more complex character trajectory.

    The bleak conclusion Sam reaches at the end (“only the dead have seen the end of war”) can’t be understated, and his confession to Grace was presented as a first step towards regaining a little more of the humanity and presence of mind he’d lost. I loved Tobey’s performance in that scene. But I also wished we’d caught another short glimpse of Tommy before the film ended. As such, the ending, I thought, lacked a little tension and resolution although it was not totally unsatisfying.

    Paola

  2. Incognita says:

    This is a beautiful review Kate and I must thank Paola for leading me here. As the movie will be a while reaching me(whether it does at all on bigscreen would depend on the Oscar buzz) I decided to risk spoilers and read this. And it has whetted my appetite all the more for the film.

    “A cheerleader army wife who kisses a brother to taste her husband’s lips.” This line brought a lump to my throat. The drowning motif is fascinating. “Tommy has a chance to pull him up for air and breath life into his brother” – something I can connect with personally.

    Paola that’s a good observation on the possible reasons for downplayed sexual chemistry between Tommy and Grace in the American version. You have summed up the relative “rise” and “fall” of the two brothers very effectively. As well as the little girls’ coping with the presumed loss and the unexpected comeback of their dad.

    I do hope the DVD comes out soon.

    Thanks Kate! I look forward to visiting here often.
    Cheers and Merry Christmas!

  3. Kate says:

    Paola, thanks so much for taking the time to write such a detailed and fully felt review of Brothers. I am so glad you were able to see it. I’m just sorry I couldn’t respond here earlier – Christmas bug – ugh…

    I was interested by your thoughts about the relationship between Jake and Natalie’s character in the film and I totally agree and think you’re right that it was downplayed. I haven’t seen the original film either, but I wasn’t expecting a sexual relationship to be played out in the film, despite the tantalising hints in the trailers! What matters is what is going on in Sam’s head, his suspicions, his daughter’s taunts, his brother’s changed life and responsibilities, his wife’s loneliness – and the example of his own parents.

    I would also have been interested to have seen more of Tommy’s life and background. I couldn’t quite believe this character as the failed bank robber we discover him to be, but the scene where he describes his apology to his victim is just wonderful. And, of course, Tommy, gets to feel what it is like to be on the other end of the gun.

    I thought Mare was so good, not that I could understand why she ended up with the man she did.

    I’m glad to see, paola, that you were able to see a non-dubbed version in Rome. I believe you were going again today for the crucial second viewing.

    Incognita! How lovely to see you here 🙂 I hope that you do get to see Brothers on the big screen but I’m glad that, if not, the DVD shouldn’t be too far behind.

    I hope you both had a wonerful Christmas.

  4. Paola says:

    Thank you, Kate, for your reply 🙂
    Indeed, I went to see Brothers again on Boxing Day, and it was worth it. I was able to concentrate a bit better on the plot, on some of the characters’ reactions/motivations (particularly the elder girl – Isabelle?) and appreciate Jake’s amazing screen presence in this movie and the subtle nuances in his performance, now that I knew what was coming.
    I was also more capable of understanding the crucial role the Tommy character has in the course of the movie. Without him, obviously, there would be no movie. He is indeed the one who ultimately ‘saves’ his brother from ‘drowning’, metaphorically, as Sam had done all those years before, physically, when Tommy had fell into the lake (river?). It’s not just a convenient bookend, I think it was an important point, for the viewer to understand how these brothers really depend on each other for their respective ‘salvation’ at different stages of their lives.
    One thing I didn’t totally understand was the implied past relationship between Tommy and Grace. Maybe I didn’t quite catch all the lines because the background music was too loud or maybe the sound system in the theatre was not too good, but when they reminisce about their youth, when she was the cheerleader etc, I think it’s mentioned that Tommy had asked her to go out with him and she turned him down because she didn’t like him (because he was always drunk, got into fights etc.): did that happen before she and Sam got together, or they were already together and Tommy was going behind Sam’s back, trying to win ‘his’ girl? What is clear is that Tommy’s prison sentence didn’t do him any favours in improving his standing in Grace’s mind: at the beginning of the film, she seems to have kept the same opinion about him she had in their teenage years…
    Another thing I remarked in my second viewing was the fact that while they are held captive, Sam and private Joe Willis often speak to each other (in the presence of their captors) in ways that make clear who’s the superior officer and who has the lower rank. Even before I read the ‘goofs’ page on IMDb, I thought to myself it would be wrong in a similar situation for two military personnel to reveal their respective ranks to their captors, information which could be used against them in a hostage situation, especially considering how emphatically Sam had stressed to his companion that he should forget about having a family and never disclose personal information to their captors. As I said, on IMDb they report this as a ‘goof’: apparently in a similar situation soldiers should refer to each other using a prearranged codeword or their social security number.

    Cheers,
    Paola

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