To American audiences fed a continuous diet of technically brilliant but shallow action movies, a film that offers the careful examination of substantive issues seems almost incomprehensible. How can you use a mass entertainment medium to raise troubling questions about the value of human relationships and the obligations they require? Well, as this recent Danish effort so powerfully demonstrates, other countries find it possible to swim in those waters with considerable success. Some members of the audience for this film will focus on the challenge it presents to those directly or indirectly responsible for First World military commitments around the globe; the rest will be confronted by an excruciating examination of the corrosive effects of suppressed guilt. (Perhaps most surprisingly of all, this gets accomplished in less than two hours and at a cost not much higher than that required for a glossy hour of criminal mayhem on a network television.)
Brothers traces the impact of military service on Michael, a major in the Danish army. He's comfortably stationed in Copenhagan along with the members of his family: wife Sarah, daughters Natalia and Elise as well as his younger brother Jannik and their parents. Clearly the favored son, Michael's imminent departure for another tour of duty in Afghanistan follows a tense family dinner held to welcome Jannik home after serving a prison sentence for the brutal assault of a female bank teller. Jannik despises his father and sister-in-law, seeing in them a personification of middle class values he's unwilling or incapable of accepting. Michael's patronizing attitude doesn't help either; adored by all four of the women in his family and idolized by his Dad, Michael sees the world as an agreeably civilized place replete with values so self-evident they need only be matched with the proper amount of unquestioning certitude.
But Michael's capture by the Taliban, (and the subsequent decisions he's forced to make in order to survive) return a different man to the loving warmth of his family after his rescue. Half way around the world, he's inexplicably done something his values define as simply unforgivable; now that he's safely home, with whom can he share his grief and its accompanying revulsion?
As Michael descends into a maelstrom of drunkenness and domestic violence, both Sarah and Jannik grapple with Michael's despair, but he rejects one as totally and viciously as the other. His disappearance and presumed death provided Jannik with the opportunity to discover a new strength of character; having done so, Jannik now finds himself despised by the very person he's always secretly worshiped. Natalia and Else cringe in their father's presence, instinctively sensing in his volatile mood swings the frightening possibility it provides for lethal danger. Sarah struggles with her conflicting desires to heal her husband while protecting their children from his inexplicable wrath, all the more frightening because it ebbs and flows without any apparent reason. Post-traumatic stress disorder has never been so horrifically epitomized nor as carefully parsed as a moral problem as well as psychological condition.
As Sarah, Danish actress Connie Nielsen (known to American audiences for frequent but unremarkable appearances in such lightweight fluff as The Hunted, Basic and The Devil's Advocate) delivers a compelling performance in her native tongue. Fusing quiet self-confidence with a deep affection for each member of her dissolving family, she manages to make her character the center of the movie, delivering her lines with a sensitivity as compelling as it is attractive. As Michael, veteran character actor Ulrich Thomsen, (Kingdom of Heaven, Killing Me Softly) offers audiences an agonizing hero that's simultaneously repellent and deeply sympathetic. Nikolaj Lie Kaas as Jannik undergoes a metamorphosis from sow's ear to silk purse thanks to Sarah's non-judgmental acceptance of his erratic and often boorish behavior. All this gets served up with the highly credible dialogue of screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen, who collaborates on the script with director Susanne Bier. The remainder of the small cast is uniformly fine, with Michael's daughters and parents deserving special praise for the manner in which they bring their characters to life.
Bier is a celebrated participant in Dogme95, the name given to a handful of Danish directors who, ten years ago, decided to rescue filmmaking from what they saw as the stifling conventions imposed by the medium's commercialization. Avoiding studio soundstages, they insist on employing hand-held cameras and natural lighting, with all shooting and sound recording taking place strictly on location. The various films which have resulted from this initiative have been alternatively irritating and exhilarating, with the most recent examples beginning to reflect a mixture of this style with more conventional techniques. As a result, Brothers displays a number of standard cinematic scenes interspersed with the grainy, intense close-ups and deliberately tilted camera angles typical of earlier examples of this directorial innovation. (Parking the camera close enough to Michael's pitted face that individual follicles of his stubble can be individually counted may sound like overkill, but the visual intrusion perfectly catches the intensity of Bier's depiction of a man so racked by guilt it seems to seep directly out of his pores.) Since Brothers focus is particularly self-reflective, the use of Dogme's unique cinematography enhances the jangling interactions of its characters rather than distracting the audience from appreciating the events which ultimately place Michael in prison at the film's climax, chocking out--on Sarah's attentive shoulder--the most heartbreaking line of dialogue ever employed to end a movie.
The film's shortcomings are slight--too much crosscutting between scenes of Michael's imprisonment in his captor's Afgan mountain hovel and those showing Sarah's valiant efforts to hold the family together during his absence, Jannik's rather facile transition from embittered felon to caring uncle and brother-in-law, a verbal attack by Michael's oldest daughter which seems oddly misplaced--but these constitute petty gripes about a production whose unflinching examination of its main character's descent into living hell packs important messages on a number of levels. Warning: seeing Brothers will provoke a profoundly troubling reaction and leave a host of unanswered questions in its wake.
The Verdict? This one's tough on the emotions but awfully good for the soul.
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