Brothers is a Jim Sheridan remake of the Danish original by director Susanne Bier in which Tobey Maguire and Jake Gyllenhaal, in appearance so plausibly relatives it's a wonder they've never been cast as siblings before, play brothers who have fallen into opposing roles as the good son and the bad seed. Maguire is soldier boy Sam, the polished apple of his Vietnam vet dad's eye, while Gyllenhaal plays Tommy, the n'er do well who as the film opens is recently returned from a spell in the clink for some sort of petty robbery. Sam has an adoring wife - his high-school sweetheart Grace (Natalie Portman) - and two cute as buttons kids; the eldest, played by award-winning ten year old child actor Bailee Madison, is one of the most convincing children in a film we've seen in quite a while, and handles tough scenes of grief and betrayal in an entirely believable way.
Occupying melodramatic territory somewhere between Greek tragedy and Jerry Springer, this US remake by Irish director Jim Sheridan has been near-universally seen by critics as falling a little short of Danish director Susanne Bier's original version. It's engaging stuff on its own terms, and if you've not seen the original, chances are you'll get something from it - Maguire's performance in particular deserves the Golden Globe nomination he received.
The tone Brothers strives for is heightened realism, but at its core, as in the original, lies a plot development whose contrivance we simply have to accept. If you like drama with big showdowns and plenty of heartbreak, there's plenty to enjoy here.
Maguire's performance is the standout, while Gyllenhaal only really comes into his own as he mellows in the second half of the film - he's hard to buy as a bearded tough, but an easy sell as a tender father figure to Grace's bereaved daughters. Only one note jars badly: why, in the name of all that is good and holy, do Grace and Tommy have to bond over a U2 song?