BROTHERS IS BASED on the Danish film of the same name (except... you know. In Danish. Brødre). I haven't seen the original, but some Googlin' reveals that the salient plot points remain largely unchanged—and the film makes no effort to distance itself from its foreign roots. Director Jim Sheridan's (In the Name of the Father, My Left Foot, and, uh, Get Rich or Die Tryin') adaptation has a contemplative steadiness far more common in European films than American ones.
Sam (Tobey Maguire) is a major in the Army; his ne'er-do-well brother Tommy (Jake Gyllenhall) has just been released from prison for an unspecified crime. The two are close, but a good son/bad son dichotomy is reinforced by their father, a hard-drinking Vietnam vet (Sam Shepard) who frequently reminds Tommy what a disappointment he is. But when Sam's plane is shot down over Afghanistan, he's presumed dead—and Tommy tries on the role of "good son" in his brother's absence, stepping in to care for Sam's wife, Grace (Natalie Portman), and their two young daughters.
The best scenes of this movie take place in domestic settings—like an uncomfortable family dinner at which Tommy's date blithely airs her opinions regarding the psychological needs of combat soldiers; or the casual banter among Tommy and his friends as they remodel Grace's kitchen. These scenes are so perfectly calibrated, so well-written and intelligently acted, that the plot's larger machinations (Sam is a prisoner of war in Afghanistan; his captors force him to do some pretty heinous shit; he returns home with a massive case of PTSD) seem almost superfluous. The scenes set in Afghanistan approach the science fictional, as Sam spends months imprisoned in a cellar, only to emerge for rounds of brutal torture from fiendish Afghanis who videotape the whole affair—I had to remind myself that, yes, these things do happen, and that dramatically speaking, the setup acts as a stressor that challenge the people back home in interesting ways.
Brothers is unusual for an American film in its willingness to permit complexity. While Sam is in Afghanistan, presumed dead, Tommy and Grace develop an easy affection that tips, just once, into a kiss—it's a confusing moment for the audience, who knows what the characters don't. Gyllenhaal and Portman are attractively sure-footed, here—and while Maguire is particularly unconvincing as a heroic soldier, when he returns from Afghanistan, hollow-eyed and twitchy, it's clear why he was cast. It's an impressive ensemble piece, rounded out by two remarkably non-annoying young actresses (Bailee Madison and Taylor Geare) as Sam and Grace's daughters. Even if Brothers occasionally goes overboard, it's worth bearing with a bit of melodrama for what's otherwise an impressively perceptive film.