‘Brothers’ movie review: Jake Gyllenhaal, Tobey Maguire in tense remake

I only question the purpose of Jim Sheridan’s Brothers. It’s a finely made film, raw and real, well-directed with some intense performances. It’s also a remake of Susanne Bier’s 2004 Danish film by the same name, and has no real distinction other than being in English, with more familiar (to American audiences, anyway) actors.

We’ve been down this road before. Usually the foreign-language film is little-seen arthouse fare, and the Hollywood-ized remake is more of a mass-appeal project. This typically involves some script changes, and I can even think of a couple remakes (Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia, Gore Verbinski’s The Ring) that I liked better than the foreign-language originals.

But this Brothers is virtually the same movie it was in 2004, and it will appeal to precisely the same audience.

Marine Captain Sam Cahill (Tobey Maguire) ships off to Afghanistan, leaving his wife Grace (Natalie Portman) and two daughters at home. His brother Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a perpetual screwup just released from prison. Father Hank (Sam Shepard) is proud of Sam and disappointed in Tommy, and lets him feel it.

Bad news comes: Sam’s helicopter was shot down, and he was killed in action. Hank to Tommy: “Why couldn’t it have been you?” Tommy to his father: “I’d slit my throat if it would bring him back.” Grace tries to get through it with her children. Tommy soon inserts himself into their lives, playing with the kids, fixing up the kitchen with his old friends. Maybe he’s not such a screwup after all.

And Sam isn’t really dead. He managed to save himself and Private Joe Willis (Patrick Flueger) from the wreckage, but they’re soon taken prisoner by insurgents. Terrible things will happen to them. These scenes are contrasted with the grieving process back home, and how Tommy fills Sam’s shoes with his wife and girls.

There are two plot developments I have a little trouble with, moreso here than in the original film. The first is that Sam is declared dead; it’s happened before, but it’s still a stretch that the army would do so, especially so soon, without a body. Neither film (perhaps wisely) really gets into the rationale behind this decision. The second is the act that Sam is forced to commit; I’m just not so sure I believe his character would do it.

The acting here – one of the few differences between the two films – is really terrific. Maguire, specifically, reaches into some painful depths in an impressive performance. Smaller roles are also well-cast, and Carey Mulligan has an excellent scene as Willis’ wife. The acting and technical craft here is arguably better than the original.

Bier’s film, however – influenced by the Dogme ’95 movement – was gritty and natural and the emotion felt more real. It may be close, but it’s unquestionably a better film. Unless you just want to admire the filmmaking involved here, there’s little reason to see Sheridan’s movie if you’ve seen Bier’s original, and no reason to see it instead.

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Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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