“There are those who go to war and those who are left behind, with each experiencing a different kind of hell.” This is a translation of an excerpt from a letter found among the possessions of a Nagasaki woman widowed when her husband was killed in action during World War II. Though it was displayed as part of a memorial exhibition, there was no mention of what had happened to the woman or whether she survived into the postwar years.
Most likely she experienced her share of hardship and hunger, as did most of the Japanese population. The government’s method of dealing with such people was to try and make them understand that their suffering was merely a fraction of the agonies endured by the nation’s soldiers. Based on this logic, it was only right that the women and their daughters, whose menfolk had been taken away, were forced into labor at munitions factories and that entire cities should subsist on water and ground-up tree roots. As the letter stated, war engendered a kind of hell, both on the front lines and back home.
There’s a different kind of wartime reality sketched out in “Brothers,” which traces the disintegration of a family following the absence of the father, a soldier reportedly killed in Afghanistan. The warzone scenes are hellish, a stark contrast to the relatively comfortable lives of American suburbia. There’s a yawning gulf between the father’s sand-and-rubble-based combat and the lives of his family members, who find it easier to leave what he experiences undiscussed.
Directed by Jim Sheridan, “Brothers” is a powerful movie but occasionally stiff and disjointed, mirroring the bewilderment, sadness and alienation felt by each of its characters. It’s by no means an easy or palatable tale, as Sheridan guides the characters relentlessly through each stage of their pain.
“Brothers” is a remake of a similarly titled film by Denmark’s Susanne Bier, in which a husband/father is reported as having been killed in action only to be miraculously returned to his kin. Once home, however, the loving man his family once knew is gone, replaced by a morose and suspicious individual unable to shake off memories of war and convinced that his wife and brother are having a torrid affair.
Sheridan’s “Brothers” retreads this storyline, but the sexual tension between the wife, husband and brother — so crucial in Bier’s tale — is significantly toned down. This is a broader tale of return and readjustment — issues that are a consequence of war conflict that few war movies have the patience (or guts) to deal with.
The story primarily revolves around Sam (Tobey Maguire), an army captain who married his high school sweetheart, Grace (Natalie Portman), and who still lives in the same army-focused town where he grew up. He is decent and self-disciplined, in contrast to his kid brother, Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal), the black sheep of the family who has just been released from prison. Everyone, including the brothers’ straight-laced dad (Sam Shepherd), regards Tommy with a cold wariness. It is only Sam who shows compassion for his younger sibling and tries to help him get back on a stable footing.
When Sam is reported killed, Grace, unequipped to deal with the loss of her husband, sinks into depression. Tommy, however, is shocked into pulling himself together and, feeling responsible to care for his brother’s family, attempts to offer a measure of support and cheer. He spends time with Grace’s kids, and renovates her kitchen until, gradually, the family’s wounds begin to heal. Meanwhile, however, Sam has been captured and is being held prisoner, starved and tortured, in an Afghan camp.
Bier’s “Brothers” had been a personal, intimate interpretation of a wartime tragedy. Sheridan’s film grapples with a modern American problem: Since Vietnam, the hell on the warfront has grown ever remote from life at home — and the emotional baggage the soldiers bring back is often too terribly fierce to fit into the fabric of family life. “Couldn’t you just stay dead!” screams Sam’s frustrated 8-year old daughter (a frighteningly convincing Bailee Madison) at her father, altered out of recognition and sitting at the dinner table like a tragic ghost. It’s a horrific moment and yet it’s fraught with truth. Dead, Sam had been a beautiful, poignant memory. Alive, his very presence contaminates the air and destroys his family’s efforts to maintain some normalcy. The film makes no compromises and the heart-wrenching final scene shows that Sam and his family’s journey through the long dark tunnel — has only just begun.