Sam (Tobey Maguire) and Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal) are about the closest replica of East of Eden that one could find. Sam is a Captain in the U.S. Army, married and the father of two beautiful children. Tommy scrapes by getting in and out of prison while earning the wraith of his father Hank (Sam Shepard).
The call of duty waits for no man, however and he is sent to Afghanistan. There, the unimaginable happens, Sam is taken by insurgent forces.
Wayward brother Tommy has just been released from prison. When news comes of Sam apparent death comes, he is far from turning his shit around like most film would have. Tommy plunges further into drinking and confrontations with Hank. Grace (Natalie Portman) has to pick him up from a night of binge drinking she finally gets through to him and the transition the following morning is much richer because it was not rushed.
As Tommy and Grace learn to make the transition from nuclear family to their happy union, Sam comes home to their simultaneous delight. To their dismay, Sam is not the same man who left them almost a year ago.
Convinced that Tommy has slept with his wife Sam is unable to emotionally connect with his family again and everyone takes notice: especially the children. Maggie's birthday party dinner is so filled with tension that when Isabelle explodes and screams, "why didn't you just stay dead?" You feel utterly deflated and torn as much as Sam.
It's really nice to see Gyllenhaal in a film that allows him to flex his acting chops. Same goes for Maguire. Both are more known for their roles as angsty teen and web-slinger, respectively, but in Brothers they both tune in and allow the audience to witness the destruction of a family following a soldier's return from war.
Natalie Portman is the emotional heart of the film as the mother who has has to keep everything together and if Bullock can garner Oscar buzz for The Blind Side someone needs to start banging the drum for Portman.
Maguire gives a real solid performance as a soldier who cannot live with what he has done to get back home to his wife and children. The traumatic experiences he suffers in Afghanistan has the most emotional impact in a film I've seen all year. Director Jim Sheridan doesn't pull the punches of Sam's POW experience and the film would not be as effective if he didn't. The way soldiers are treated in this country is shameful we train them to kill and when their tour is over we send them home without as much a second thought about their well-being.
Brothers, while a solid effort supported by its acting, never really strives to say anything outside Sam's POW experience. For that reason it only garners three stars.