Fun fact: Five years separate Susanne Bier’s Danish film Brødre and the English-language remake, yet the defining trauma of both melodramas remains the war in Afghanistan. (And should the Danish want to remake the remake again in a few years, the script likely won’t need a rewrite.) Scripted by 25th Hour writer David Benioff and helmed by In The Name Of The Father director Jim Sheridan, the new Brothers more or less transcribes Bier and Anders Thomas Jensen’s love triangle between a military professional, his wife, and his screw-up brother—a dynamic that shifts radically before, during, and after the former leaves for his latest tour of duty and is declared dead after a helicopter crash. It’s a combustible (though boilerplate) situation that Bier, once Dogme 95-certified, plays to the hilt. For his part, Sheridan treats it with a turgidness that shouldn’t be mistaken for restraint.
In the early going, Tobey Maguire and Natalie Portman are an iconic American military family, high-school sweethearts—he was the quarterback, she a cheerleader—who live in a nice little house with two adorable young girls. Few men could hope to measure up to that standard, but Maguire’s brother (Jake Gyllenhaal), an ex-con and frequent drunk, falls considerably short of the mark—a fact that their Vietnam-vet father (Sam Shepard), no angel himself, never fails to point out. When Maguire is shot down in Afghanistan, Gyllenhaal pulls himself together enough to take care of his brother’s family without fully usurping his role as father and husband. No matter: Maguire returns unexpectedly, having suffered tremendously, and the sight of his wife and brother together ignites his paranoia, frustration, and anger.
With all these elements in place—brother against brother, intimations of adultery, and post-traumatic stress disorder at the top, not to mention alcoholism, crushing guilt, a cruel father, and assorted other crises—Brothers seems like a powder keg ready to go off. And though someone clearly lit the fuse on the normally mild-mannered Maguire, the film takes a leisurely hour to get to its dramatic core, with scenes from Afghanistan on loan from The Deer Hunter. Still, the intrinsically powerful material occasionally pierces through, with Gyllenhaal especially strong as a reformed yahoo who suddenly takes on more responsibility than he seems capable of handling. Brothers supplies him and the other actors with a slew of big dramatic moments, but the emotions ring louder than any truths.