Tobey Maguire, left, and Jake Gyllenhaal in ‘Brothers'
The last time Jim Sheridan's name was in the credits of a theatrical release, the Irish director paired up rather awkwardly with 50 Cent in 2005's Get Rich or Die Tryin', a semiautobiographical account of the platinum rapper's days as a drug dealer who cleans up to become a rap star.
Sheridan is a great storyteller, but Get Rich or Die Tryin' was more awkward than rewarding.
For his latest film, Brothers, the director returns to more familiar dramatic turf, and the film is better because of it. Sheridan has a way of shining a light on the mind and soul of his film's characters, and the director never turns away from the darkness he finds in the process.
This is particularly true of Brothers, which is bolstered by Oscar-worthy turns by a strong cast, led by Jake Gyllenhaal, Natalie Portman, and Tobey Maguire.
Brothers is the story of Capt. Sam Cahill (Maguire), a model son, husband, and father, whose love of country is exceeded only by the love of family.
Sam is the man you want to marry your daughter, and whose life has been about making the right choices.
He's the Abel of this tale. And his younger brother, Tommy, is the Cain.
Tommy (Gyllenhaal) is the misfit in his family, and an ex-con. He isn't a bad person so much as he is lost.
When Brothers opens, Tommy is leaving prison, with only Sam there to greet him. The two siblings are close. While Tommy lives in the shadow of his brother, Sam passes no judgment on him. The same can't be said of the rest of their family.
Sam's wife, Grace (Portman), doesn't care for Tommy and his father, Hank (Sam Shepard), views his son with contempt.
But Tommy is determined to turn his life around. He makes amends for his misdeed - the film never says why he served time, other than Tommy apologizing to the woman he hurt because of the crime - but is unable to shake the feeling of being an outcast, and turns to the bottle in solace.
Meanwhile, Sam learns he's being shipped to Afghanistan, leaving his wife and two young daughters alone.
During a mission over the badlands of the country, his helicopter is shot down, and Sam is presumed dead, leaving his wife to raise their daughters alone.
With Sam no longer around, Tommy finds a new purpose in life: to live up to the standards set by his brother. Tommy begins to turn his life around, and embrace his responsibility to be there for Sam's family, and in doing so, forges a new friendship with Grace that shows signs of being something more.
Sam's daughter's, Maggie and Isabelle (Taylor Geare and Bailee Madison, respectively, delivering moving, standout performances), also take to their uncle, and Tommy finds himself inheriting the family life he never knew he wanted.
All the while, Sam has been in captivity in a small Afghanistan village along with another soldier. The two are tortured almost daily for information by a militia group, and slowly Sam's mental and physical resolve begins to crumble as his desperation to return home grows.
What Sam does to survive that year until he's rescued will haunt him long after he's reunited with his family. Gone is the perfect solider and family man, replaced by a time bomb waiting to explode.
When Sam begins to suspect Grace and Tommy are having an affair, he pushes them further to learn the truth, all the while bringing himself closer to the edge of sanity. The climactic showdown between the trio is as heartbreaking as it gripping. It's a powerful scene, brief as it may be, that's not easily forgotten.
Based on a Danish movie by Susanne Bier, Brothers is a story of contrast - light and dark, and more often, the gray area most of us inhabit in between.
Gyllenhaal and Maguire find those spots, and bring forth characters alternately triumphant and tragic. Maguire's role is the showier of the two performances as his soul withers and his mind breaks down, but it's Gyllenhaal who anchors the film with a steady calm through the dramatic tension.
Portman also delivers a strong performance, as a woman who thinks of herself as a "cliche," the good-girl cheerleader who married the high school quarterback and all-American boy. Faced with being a single mother, she lets down her guard to Tommy and confesses that she, too, has been lost.
Brothers isn't a love triangle, so much as it is people trying to find themselves and each other.
It's the story of redemption.
Much like Sheridan's own.
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