Brothers is a movie that has kind of slipped through the cracks. It showed up towards the end of 2009, but not in enough time for me to see it for my Best-Of list. It’s been nominated for some awards already, but not enough to make people feel like they ought to go out and see it. It’s got some actors who people like, but it looks like a downer. It doesn’t look like fun.
Well yeah, it isn’t much fun. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t any good. That doesn’t mean it isn’t even a little important. It sure does have the pedigree: Jim Sheridan, the Irish director who showed his skill at creating detailed, likable characters in 2002’s In America, directed from a script by David Benioff, the big-name Hollywood screenwriter who showed a similar skill in his script for 25th Hour (one of my Top Ten Of The Past Decade!). The trio of lead characters, played by Natalie Portman, Jake Gyllenhaal, and the astounding-in-this-movie Tobey Maguire, are convincing and heartbreaking. They’re aided by ace supporting performances by reliable actors such as Sam Shepard and Clifton Collins Jr., and by two of the best performances I’ve seen from little children since, well, In America. The two little girls who play Maguire’s daughters are deeply affecting. Also due for mention is Frederick Elmes, the hall of fame cinematographer who has worked with David Lynch, Jim Jarmusch, Ang Lee, and Charlie Kaufman, who shot the movie with understatement and grace. The movie was shot largely in New Mexico, and it shows. This doesn’t look like L.A. This looks like elsewhere in America, the parts of America where you find the people who actually have to fight our wars for us.
That’s what this movie did for me, by the way. It made me think about those people, who need to be thought about. Whatever else minor flaws keep it from being considered a quote-unquote great film, Brothers is expert at detailing the realities of post-traumatic stress disorder. I left Brothers crushed and thoroughly sad – this movie is about something that is really happening right now to people our age and younger, who are sent overseas to kill and to take bullets and to watch their fellows die, only to return home without any kind of adequate psychological counseling.
Brothers is a wartime movie, and that’s the real reason for its lack of box-office and cultural heat. People just aren’t interested in seeing this kind of story at the movies. That’s starting to bother me. There’s a massive disconnect between the America whose sons and daughters are sent overseas to fight and die, and the other America, which I fully admit to being a part of, whose lives are affected more by the recession or any number of concerns other than the war in the Middle East. Unless we personally know someone in the military, unless we’re the type of person who follows and cares about the news, some of us are not forced to think much about the fact that we are actually at war. We might be unemployed and stressed about that, but we don’t have to worry about the physical safety of our friends and family, or just as much at-risk, the psychological toll of their experiences.
So instead we go to see a movie like Avatar for a fourth or fifth time, which surely isn’t wrong, but then again, if we have that kind of free time, maybe it is somewhat wrong to ignore a movie that might make us think about something that matters. (I’m only singling Avatar out here because it’s become the most popular movie of all time as all of this other stuff is happening in the world.) As I wrote yesterday, Avatar is fun but meaningless; it is the ultimate movie of the moment expressly because it is about escaping reality – both in the way that Jake Sully escapes his wheelchair to become a nine-foot-tall forest god, and in the way that literally the act of watching the movie in those 3-D glasses is an escape. It’s a video game movie. It’s a luxury. The very fact that I can post these thoughts on the internet, and any number of Avatar fans are free to comment on the many reasons why I’m wrong, is a luxury. We’re very lucky to be able to sit at our computers and talk and read about escapist movies. But just recognize that it’s a distraction, ultimately meaningless comparatively. Avatar isn’t about anything but coolness. There’s a place for that, to be sure, especially for those people who actually need a little escape. But it’s not the only movie out there. That’s all I’m saying.
Brothers forced me to think about something other than my own life. I haven’t been quite the same since I saw it. It somehow changed my thinking, just the tiniest bit. If that isn’t an important movie, I don’t know what is.
You can still see Brothers theatrically in many cities, I think. If you have the time, give it a chance. Don’t let me make it sound like homework – it’s not in the least bit boring. When I call Brothers a good movie, that doesn’t mean “good for you” – it really means “good movie.”
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