Since Homer, storytellers have known that the experience of war changes people. At the beginning of the last century, it was called shell shock. Today it’s known as post traumatic stress disorder. And with two lingering wars being fought by a too small volunteer armed services we’re going to see a lot more of it both in real life and in movies. If you thought the shell shocked Vietnam vet was a cliche, just wait.

Brothers is the story of Sam and Tommy Cahill. Sam, the older brother, played by Tobey Maguire, is a straight arrow marine, former quarterback, married to ex-cheerleader, Grace, played by Natalie Portman. Sam is getting ready to go on his fourth deployment to Afghanistan. He hates to leave his wife and two daughters, but he knows his duty and is enthusiastic about doing it.

Tommy, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, on the other hand is just getting out of jail. He drinks too much, has a problem with authority, especially their marine father, Hank, played by Sam Shepard, and obviously hasn’t amounted to anything. Grace doesn’t like him, and hasn’t since high school, and he barely knows his nieces.

When Sam’s helicopter goes down in Afghanistan and he’s presumed dead, Tommy starts to take an interest in his brother’s family. In fact, he starts turning himself around, getting a job with some high school buddies who do contracting. His first job with them is remodeling Grace’s kitchen. He’s good with the girls, taking them ice skating and generally being a good uncle.

Sam survives, however, and comes home. Or at least part of him does. He’s different now, quiet, obsessed with the idea that Tommy may have slept with Grace and scarred both physically and mentally. Because of what he had to do to survive, he can’t really talk with anyone about what’s bothering him. It’s only a matter of time before he goes off.

That’s a lot of plot to get through in just under two hours and director Jim Sheridan doesn’t quite pull it off. Instead Brothers feels like three rather hurried short films. There’s the pre-deployment setup, Tommy’s redemption when he has to step up and take responsibility, and Sam’s troubled return. Add to that Sam’s adventures during the war and you have too many themes, too many directions, and not enough time to develop any of them. Instead of a post-modern Odyssey we get a serviceable melodrama.

Maguire and Gyllenhaal turn in good performances as the brothers. Portman isn’t given much beyond the dutiful marine wife. Sam Shepard stands out.

Unfortunately, the whole winds up being something less than the sum of these parts. Hollywood will revisit this theme. There will be worse treatments, but there will also be much better ones.


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