Susanne Bier's 2005 melodrama, Brothers, was just that, a simple soap opera between a war vet, his wife and his brother, and while Jim Sheridan's update isn't terribly different at its core, its all-American setting quietly places a firmer emphasis on the toll of our current war at home.
Just as Tommy Cahill (Jake Gyllenhaal) is getting out of another stint in jail, his brother Sam (Tobey Maguire) is about to ship off to Afghanistan for another tour of duty. His wife, Grace (Natalie Portman), wishes him well, as does everyone, but soon enough, his helicopter is taken down by enemy fire and news comes that Sam was among the casualties - although he is actually a prisoner of war. Tommy, out of guilt, and Grace, out of need, draw closer to one another, close enough to rile up the suspicions of a changed Sam once he returns home...
It's a ready-made drama-fest, starting off with grief, ending up with paranoia, and tense in between as we cut back to Afghanistan and the awful deeds that Sam's captors force upon him. Back home, it's a more gradual progression of having Tommy take up responsibility and be welcomed back into the fold (his father, played by Sam Shepard, gradually lets his resentment go, which only benefit his initially heavy-handed scenes), so that by the time Sam shows back up, domestic bliss is bound to be upended by the aftereffects of the war and conflict seems to evolve naturally from these characters and their circumstances.
Sheridan knows how to keep matters low-key, using Frederick Elmes' cinematography to paint the New Mexico shooting locations in an admirably anytown light and keeping the youngest performances from Bailee Madison and Taylor Geare (as Grace and Sam's daughters) from being too cloying, a skill already demonstrated with 2002's In America and just underrated in general. Thomas Newman's subtle score tries its best to keep emotions on an even keel throughout, and in adapting the screenplay, David Benioff merely swapped out the subtitles, keeping the proportion of back-home/over-there scenes identical and ideal for us to sympathize with Sam once he goes off the deep end.
And off the deep end is just about the only time that any of the lead performers loses their grip on the material. Until then, Portman comes across as a loving mother and lonely wife, a former cheerleader who can't cope with the prospect of being a widow. Gyllenhaal, knowing as well as we do that he's due for redemption, quietly grows in consideration for his family and responsibility for his life. And Maguire has all the pride and patriotism of a man ready and willing to serve his country once more, only to be burdened with the terrible truth about what was forced to do and the sneaking suspicion that his family may no longer belong to him.
His low simmer, combined with the performances of his young girls, help bring a dinner table conversation-turned-confrontation into a taut turning point in the relationship of all involved. However, it's past this point that Maguire's character gets a bit more hysterical (he must get it from his father). What happened to him may be feasibly traumatic, but his climactic uproar makes him feel like less of a threat to himself and others than intended. Only here does this version of Brothers concern itself more with how far Sam might go than how much he'll let anyone in, and only here does it seem to suffer in comparison to its predecessor.
But more so than its predecessor, Brothers dwells as much on the toll of a conflict abroad as it does on that of a conflict at home. There's no denying that it takes a melodramatic story to get there, but at least it gets to the heart of the matter before blowing its fuse.