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Brothers (2005)

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 05/10/05 00:08:43

"Get ready to feel like complete crap. But it's worth it."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

SCREENED AT THE 2005 DEEP FOCUS FILM FESTIVAL: My neighborhood is riddled with yellow ribbons. A local boy, one of too many shipped off to Iraq and Afghanistan, was captured early last year; his condition remains unknown. And so my neighbors have placed yellow ribbons in every available spot, a sign of support and hope. Sadly, we are not alone: this world is full of far too many neighborhoods like mine, overflowing with the grief of families waiting, hoping, crying for a loved one to return from the hell of war.

Which brings me to “Brothers.” The film tells a story of infinite sadness and overwhelming mourning: shortly after being shipped out to Afghanistan, dutiful Danish soldier Michael (Ulrich Thompson) is shot down, leaving behind a widow (Connie Nielsen) and two daughters.

What follows is something I feel best works as a surprise - not that there are any “twists,” per se, but the less you know about the story, the more effective it will be. And yet there is so much that happens here that must be discussed in a proper review, and so while I will refrain from commenting on any of the later plot points, I will be discussing a few big ones, the ones that have been discussed before in other reviews and even in the film’s marketing. Still, I’ll ask that if you don’t want to be spoiled, you should probably click away right now.

Seriously.

OK?

OK.

Now. Michael’s brother, Jannik (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), is the black sheep. Fresh out of prison, a family dinner held before Michael ships off goes horribly. Jannik’s jealous of Michael’s success, Michael’s frustrated with Jannik’s criminal behavior, nobody in the family seems happy at all. But when Michael is pronounced dead, Jannik begins to reform - creating a new friendship with Sarah as he tries to become the better man.

But there’s a hook: Michael isn’t dead. Quite alive, he’s taken to a prison camp, and it’s here that the film goes from being a brutal examination of grief and loss to a brutal examination of the horrors some people must endure. Either way, it’s brutal, a cinematic knee to the crotch.

Director Susanne Bier lets the viewer feel every ounce of the emotional pain; her cameras often give us extreme close-ups of the actors, as if their suffering has no way of escaping outside the frame, and therefore must go directly from the characters to the viewer. To call the film “intimate” is to understate it. This is a film that not only looks in on the lives of those in distress, but it refuses to leave once there.

And the script (story by Bier, screenplay by Anders Thomas Jensen) is structured so that the tension, nervousness, and heartbreak are constantly escalating, with no release in sight. When Michael finally comes home, you would expect to find euphoria. Instead, Jensen and Bier, realizing the horrors Michael has experienced, refuse to provide us with an overly simplistic he’s-back-everything’s-good third act. Michael now has to live with the memories of what bordered on sadism, memories which will not fade away, memories which Michael insists on keeping to himself. This homecoming, which one hoped would be wonderful, becomes a pressure cooker ready to pop.

It’s powerful stuff, to be sure. The horrors of war, the pain of loved ones left back home, the despair of a family falling apart… Bier’s film is consistently unflinching in every way. It’s a movie that will knock the wind out of you, leave you dazed, and give you just a minor taste of the emotions to be found in those neighborhood homes with yellow ribbons on the door.

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