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Strange how a movie that is built out of the simplest and most unpretentious elements can take on the weight of an epic tragedy when mounted and executed just the right way. Brothers has one of the least complicated plots imaginable, but it has been invested with a kind of thought and detail that makes this most basic of stories into something true and real. A lesser movie would have ended up like a TV special (and the fact that Brothers was shot on video might only reinforce that), but Brothers avoids that trap and becomes not just a good movie but a great one, an example of how a movie at its best can be as absorbing as any novel written.
The brothers in question are Jannik (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), fresh out of prison for having committed an armed robbery. He was not just greedy but careless and stupid, and hurt a woman in the process. Michael (Ulrich Thomsen) is the older brother, more “responsible”—he has a wife and children, and is a soldier for the Danish army—but seems compelled to impose his sense of responsibility on others even when it is not really wanted, or appropriate. When he picks up Jannik at the prison gates, he demands that the other man go to the woman he wronged and apologize. He may have served time for the robbery, but the assault still remains unresolved. Jannik’s response to this is to bail out of the car and sulk.
The tension between the two brothers is an adjunct to other tensions that already exist between Michael and the rest of his family. Because he is the one risking his neck for them, he reasons, he demands that they respond in kind. Yes, even his two little girls, who are clearly not old enough to respond as adults ought to, but whom he seems to expect as much from as he does his wife Sarah (Connie Nielsen—yes, that Connie Nielsen). Then one day Michael is sent to Afghanistan, goes out on a mission to find a missing radar operator, is attacked while in a helicopter, and presumed killed.
Michael’s death does not so much galvanize the rest of the family as ossify it. All of their worst tendencies come to the fore—like with Michael’s father, who never opens his mouth except to say something negative about Jannik, and after a few such scenes we can see how Jannik ended up where he is. You can’t fall out of bed if you sleep on the floor, and so maybe Jannik has adopted chronic failure (and drunkenness, and violence) as a way of fulfilling the expectations people have been carrying around for so long about him that they forgot where they came from. That’s why it comes as all the more of a surprise when he begins to get his act together—tentatively, painfully, but in a way that Sarah can recognize as being honest.
It turns out that Michael is in fact not dead, but has instead been taken prisoner in an insurgent’s war camp. There he meets the radar operator he was sent to find, and is then forced to choose between dying or killing the other man (who, unlike him, has no useful skills and is something of a coward). This scene is horrific in the way most such scenes never are: he hesitates, he screams, he weeps, then finally caves in and beats the man to death with a pipe, and the scene goes on just long enough for us to reflect on how hard it is to actually kill someone with only our bare hands. And we are also made to think that no, perhaps that is not what we would have done, but anyone who has been at the wrong end of a gun knows that there are some places and times where it is not possible to have the convenience of being moral.
Michael is in time rescued, and brought home, and there both he and his family have to deal with the shock of him being very much alive. Physically, anyway, since the incident has destroyed Michael’s spirit in more ways than one. He cannot believe that his wife and Jannik have not, in fact, slept together (although they have grown close); that they maintained the belief that he was somehow still alive; that Jannik has become a different and even a better person. He has become the bad one now—fuming irrationally at the dinner table, lying to his fellow officers about what he witnessed in the camp, consumed by guilt and at the same time unable to expunge it. When he goes to the wife of the radar operator and tries to tell her what has happened—much as he commanded his brother to apologize to the woman he wronged—he tells a convenient lie to save face. He has only given her false hope that she does not deserve.
Part of what makes a good movie into a great one is how the movie directs its attention towards details. Brothers understands perfectly how little moments can become big ones. Look at the scene where Michael and Jannik are at an ice-skating rink, trying to talk about the monumental subject of whether or not wife and brother were unfaithful. They want it to be a casual subject, but it will not come out like that. It cannot. Later, there is a scene where Michael returns to his family after having blown up, and tries to make amends. “Don’t be afraid of me,” he tells his children, but their haunted eyes speak of damage that cannot be undone with kind words. And later one of them tells a lie that is calculated to drive him away, in the unthinkingly hurtful way a child can be, and that sends him into a horrific rage.
These moments, and many others like them throughout the film, are exactly right, and they are assembled and delivered with the weight of having been lived through instead of just imagined. There are no missteps, no cheap tricks, and the ending is delivered with the same weight and care as the whole rest of the movie before it. No, all does not end well, but there is enough light shed on everyone to give us the sense that redemption is possible now, where before it was not because of the weight of the past. People are not redeemed all at once but in stages, over time, and only in the light of those who can value such things.
My one sticking point with the film is not even an aesthetic consideration but a technical one. Brothers was shot on video and uses a curious look where every shot is heavily vignetted—there’s a haze all the way around the edge of every frame—that was either a deliberate choice on the part of the filmmakers or a limitation of the camera in use. It’s not fatal, just mildly distracting, and it certainly doesn’t affect the movie’s overall power or the strength of its performances. I was in particular deeply affected by Connie Nielsen, much to my own surprise, who does a magnificent job of giving us a woman of enormous inner strength and no small personal serenity, and her last scenes with her husband are, again, a model of how to get a very difficult scene exactly right.
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