Brothers has some very fine acting. Natalie Portman, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Tobey Maguire make you feel the scars of war, the trauma of sibling rivalry, and the dread of wounded relationships. If you were teaching an acting class, you could credibly point to the three leads elevating the material with dogged professionalism.
There. I wanted to get the praise portion of the film out of the way because I did not have a good time with material. Because the story itself ... yeeps. It's not all there.
Tobey Maguire is Marine Captain Cahill, proud veteran of war, soon to head back to Afghanistan for another tour of duty. His brother is ne'er-do-well Jake Gyllenhaal, freshly released from prison. In case you're not quite certain if he's a "bad guy," the filmmakers helpfully give him a neck tattoo. There, done. Natalie Portman is the doting wife of Tobey, mother of their two darling little girls. But things go brutally bad, terribly wrong, in Afghanistan for Tobey. And somewhere in there is the third act of Brothers.
Now then, I haven't seen the original Danish film, Brodre, so I'm not sure if it's a faithful adaptation. I do feel confident in saying this is a tale of two conflicting stories, neither of which ever form any real cohesion. You've got Tobey's time in Afghanistan, jarring and awful. And you've got Portman and Gyllenhaal back in America, slowly learning to trust and depend on each other ... as humans tend to do in the absence of a spouse. It's hard to figure if this film is meant to educate or entertain, as it never gets around to having a central thrust. And therein lies my tremendous reservations about the work. What is this film about? How terrible war is? The oddness of interpersonal relationships in a time of grief? The method filmmakers use to make you squirm? You can't help but feel terrifically manipulated during the running time of Brothers; you're feeling something, but it's impossible to say why you are.
I've seen it written that this is a "war film" and that we should finally confront our current squeamishness with that topic. But this is no more a war film than Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a film about martial arts, and the casual and unbalanced look at the Afghanistan conflict does the movie no service.
We certainly do need directors and artists to remind us that war is consequential. We also need films that make us consider our loved ones, and the support we rely on every day. What we don't need is a story that does 30 percent of each, a depressing tale of contrived melodrama that fails to make any point at all.