Brothers -- Film Review

The simple yet powerful story of the Prodigal Son was given a vigorous new interpretation in the 2004 Danish film "Brothers," directed by Susanne Bier from a screenplay she wrote with Anders Thomas Jensen. Irish director Jim Sheridan, who has made his films in America in recent years, now delivers an American remake that hues closely to the original but loses some of its true grit. The emotional devastation of the final reels still hits you hard, but you wonder how things would have played had Sheridan and writer David Benioff ("The Kite Runner") ventured into new territory.

"Brothers" boasts an impressive cast including Tobey Maguire and Jake Gyllenhaal as the diametrically opposed siblings, with Natalie Portman as the woman caught between their forceful personalities. The movie looks to draw serious and older audiences, though the casting should attract more than a few young filmgoers. It certainly is heartening to see Lionsgate, with this film and the critically lauded "Precious," balance genre fare with artistically adventurous releases.

Neither version of "Brothers" is afraid to posit characters at such extremes as its two brothers. Sam Cahill (Maguire) is a straight-arrow Marine captain from a military family. He got good grades, played football, married his high school sweetheart, Grace (Portman), and is ready to deploy to Afghanistan on a fourth tour of duty. Younger brother Tommy (Gyllenhaal), just out of the slammer for bank robbery, is a drunk and a fool.

What is potentially very interesting in this version is the hint that their father, Hank, a Vietnam vet, played a key role in the brothers' diverse trajectories -- that a turbulent family life provoked strong though radically different reactions. Since gravelly Sam Shepard is playing the father, expectations are further raised that this psychological backstory might get rigorously explored. It is not.

Sam's helicopter is shot down, and he is presumed dead. (The Afghan war has been going on so long that it plays the same role in both movies, five years apart.) The tragedy jolts Tommy out of his alcoholic lethargy. He assumes a much greater role with his brother's family, remodeling a badly dysfunctional kitchen and becoming a kind of protector to his wife and pal to his two daughters. Inevitably, he falls for Grace.

In a parallel story, the film shows the appalling experiences of Sam and a fellow soldier (Patrick Flueger), who survived the crash but fell into the hands of the Taliban. Unfortunately, this is the weakest section of the film. Bier depicted the real horror in Sam's mental and physical challenges as well as his subtle relationship with his fellow soldier, so you believe the officer would snap and commit a soul-killing act in order to survive. This event is never convincing in the remake.

When Sam is liberated and returns home, he is a changed man who doubts his manhood and moral integrity. To then discover that Tommy has not only become responsible but, to Sam, is clearly in love with his wife sends him into convulsions of rage and jealousy, to the point that he is a danger to himself and his family.

These are the strongest moments of the film. Maguire is able to maintain an exterior not unlike his former self yet show you a shattered man inside. The forced smile he once used to referee between his dad and brother, who are always at odds with each other, now betrays the trauma he suffers.

Gyllenhaal, on the other hand, never seems as desolate as he probably should be. He has a little too much charm and merely seems to be going through a bad patch. Similarly, Shepard needs more scenes to investigate fully his troubled character.

Portman's Grace isn't in charge to the degree she might be as the new head of the household. This comes mostly from the writing, which makes her role largely reactive, but the actress glides through scenes too superficially, not leaving a distinct impression.

The two youngsters who plays the daughters, Bailee Madison and Taylor Geare, are exceptionally good in showing how adult misbehavior can damage and distort their natural trust and instincts.

Sheridan's behind-the-scenes team on this production, shot entirely in New Mexico, do fine work on what appears to be a modest budget.

Opens: Friday, Dec. 4 (Lionsgate)
Production: Lionsgate and Relativity Media present a Sighvatsson Films/Relativity Media/Michael De Luca Prods. Production
Rated R, 104 minutes