A movie so nice she made it twice, Susanne Bier's Dogme-certified feature Open Hearts gets a slight makeover in her follow-up Brothers, another raw melodrama about three lives recalibrated by sudden tragedy. The dynamic in each is more or less the same: Things start with a happy young married couple, events conspire to pull the husband out of the picture (a car accident in Open Hearts, a helicopter accident in Brothers), and the wife seeks comfort from another man, in a relationship that inevitably grows more intimate. In both films, the formula yields instant, combustible melodrama, stirring up complex and powerful feelings of guilt, passion, intimacy, and estrangement among its protagonists, all of whom are victims of circumstance more than choice. And yet Bier's variations on a theme don't exactly herald the second coming of Yasujiro Ozu, perhaps because she pushes too hard for emotional effect, relying on script machinations to strong-arm the audience into submission.
Both movies start like gangbusters, sparked by a single incident that immediately and dramatically changes the course of its characters' lives. Before lowering the boom, Brothers sets up an uneasy dynamic between the titular siblings, one a committed and conscientious military man with a beautiful wife and two young daughters, the other a perpetual fuck-up recently released on an assault charge. Shortly after being sent to Afghanistan for a three-month tour of duty, Nikolaj Lie Kaas is presumed dead when his helicopter is downed by enemy troops. Devastated by the news, his wife Connie Nielsen makes the adjustment with the support of Kaas' brother Ulrich Thomsen, who sobers up enough to offer solace and help out around the house. As it turns out, Kaas survived the crash and was temporarily held prisoner, but he returns home a changed man, dogged by a traumatic experience that has left him sullen, distant, and occasionally violent.
For the other characters and the movie, it would have been better had Kaas stayed dead. The most affecting scenes come toward the beginning, when Thomsen and Nielsen are making the painful but necessary adjustments to a loved one's death, an experience common to everyone. What's not so common is Kaas' phony, Deer Hunter-esque odyssey in Afghanistan and the overplayed post-traumatic stress syndrome that follows, which so wipes out his humanity that he becomes a raging monster. With the melodrama ratcheted up to a hysterical pitch, Brothers turns into the ugliest sort of Dogme exercise, passing off emotional manipulation as hard realism.