Marine Captain Sam Cahill (Tobey Maguire) is due to leave his close knit family to begin a second tour of Afghanistan. Just before he leaves, his brother Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal) is released after completing a sentence in prison.
Their father Hank (Sam Shepherd) is a Vietnam vet, immensely proud of Sam's commitment to his country. He's a cantankerous man, who takes pleasure in belittling Tommy whenever he can - which seems to be the theme for all the family get togethers. Sam and Tommy's mother Elsie (beautifully played by Mare Winningham) and Sam's wife Grace (Natalie Portman) seem helpless to stop these verbally abusive attacks of father to second son. Finally, Tommy snaps and and he reminds his father of his brutal treatment of their mother when the boys were growing up.
When Sam's helicopter is shot down in Afghanistan, and it's reported that no-one survived, Grace is told the terrible news which devastates her. Tommy steps in to fill the breach and take care of his brothers wife and two daughters, Isabella and Maggie.
Back in Afghanistan two Marines have survived the crash and are taken as prisoners of the Taliban. Both suffer beatings and torture. The other marine finally breaks and agrees to make a video criticising the American government for invading Afghanistan. Sam however, is resolute and holds out.
Eventually the Taliban come under attack from the Americans and are wiped out. The only survivor is Sam Cahill, a severely traumatised man barely able to speak a word. He is returned home to his over joyed family,parents,wife and two children, and brother - but he is a mere shadow of the person they knew. Unable to sleep, he roams the house during the night, with a loaded hand gun at the ready. His children are terrified of him and seek the refuge of Uncle Tommy. As Sam sees his place in the family being usurped, he begins to believe Grace and Tommy are lovers.
There have been some great movies made about war and its consequences. The Best Years Of Our Lives (1946) William Wyler's compassionate film about the difficulty of men returning home to take their place back into their communities won countless awards including an Oscar for Wyler.
Robert DeNiro has appeared in two films about psychologically damaged men returning home. Director Michael Cimino really hit the mark with the heart rending Deer Hunter. a story about three close fiends from a Pennsylvania steelworks who are called up to go fight in Viet Nam. De Niro plays Michael, the quiet steady leader of the group who after returning home seeks out his two fellow vets who are really struggling. One has had his legs blown off and the other is missing in 'Nam, not wanting to return home as he feels he doesn't fit there any more.
The other De Niro film (also about returnees from Viet Nam) is Jacknife (De Niro) a wild kinda guy, known as a self destructive, hard living drifter. Fifteen years earlier three Marines form a bond and look out for one another. One of the three is killed and the two left find themselves in deep grief rendering their lives back home tortuous,meaningless and directionless. Ed Harris plays the other survivor and Kathy Baker is Harris' sister.
I mention these other films from different eras that all deal with the same post war stress - as examples of how we haven't learned a thing about war and its futility, and how we fail to provide proper care for these soldiers once they return. All of these films show many vets as heavy drinkers, several of them - Brothers and Jacknife - show vets who go on rampages when pushed too far, and the Best Years of our Lives has one man - a former soda jerk - returning to a less than ideal home life, with his show girl wife more interested in her social life than in her husband.
One of the strengths of Brothers is the depth of talent starring in this movie. Sam Shepherd and Mare Winningham standout as support actors, and Tobey Maguire who gives a sterling performance, has some fine characterisations in films behind him (the Good German comes immediately to mind) and Jake Gyllenhaal, (who took a two week break during the making of Brothers due to the death of Heath Ledger) has gone from strength to strength in his career. Natalie Portman is one actor who has earned high praise and respect from her peers and critics alike - although her role as Grace Cahill isn't a great stretch for her. A very good film worth 4 and a half stars - but 4 will have to suffice. Strongly recommended.