REVIEW: Brødre [Brothers] [2004]

“He had a little boy”

I really don’t mind Hollywood remaking films, honestly. If a filmmaker really enjoyed something made overseas, I can’t blame him for wanting to expose America to what resonated so well personally to him. However, shouldn’t he then go the route of Tarantino or Scorsese and bring the actual movie over, helping audiences experience the original? Or have we become so self-righteous and elitist that subtitles cannot be bothered with? Are we really that lazy? To be fair, I haven’t seen the new remake Brothers, so I can’t say whether it is effective or not, but, frankly, I could care less. Susanne Bier has crafted a masterpiece of tone, emotion, and weight that is as close to perfect as be. All that anyone can hope to achieve is something that might be on par with her Danish-language Brødre [Brothers]. I’m a huge fan of director Jim Sheridan, as well as the three principal actors in the English version, yet, if you feel the need to see their film, I plead with you all to see the 2004 release instead. Bear with the subtitles, please—you will not be disappointed.

Hollywood is in the business of making money and after the huge success of The Departed, despite our country’s almost complete ignorance to the film its based on, Infernal Affairs, (which Scorsese remaking kind of counters my argument above; trust me, helps foreign films exist here), the industry will continue to seek material to rework for the masses. Not only will they take the story and most likely water it down, if they don’t just end up re-shooting it shot for shot—in which case they should just dub the original—they will do what is necessary to sell tickets, including hiring A-list stars to perform. But, just like I can’t seriously fault Matt Damon or Leo DiCaprio, as their performances were real good in The Departed, I cannot rail against Gyllenhaal, Maguire, and Portman—especially since I didn’t see their film—although I can wonder at the selection of fresh-faced twenty-somethings in parts previously played by veteran foreigners. Just like Lau and Leung left shoes too big to fill, making Damon and DiCaprio appear as boys versus men, the cast in Brødre is untouchable in terms of effectiveness. Bier’s film is inhabited by thirty and forty year olds, men and women who have experienced life and carry their past with them, etched on their faces and heavy on their shoulders.

It all begins with an auspicious day in the life of the central family. Michael is about to leave for a three-month stint in Afghanistan as a major in the Danish army, but before he ships off, he has the honor of welcoming back his brother Jannik from a three-year incarceration for robbery and assault. While the boys’ father may never forgive his youngest son for his transgressions, nor let him forget how honorable his eldest is, the boys show a bit more compassion despite very differing lifestyles. Jannik is a loose cannon looking to drink away his sorrows and most likely wind up right back in jail, yet Michael will have none of it, not only letting his last night in Denmark be shared by his brother’s first back, but also giving him access to his new car while he’s gone. The story is a continuation of their familial dynamic from childhood, appearing to possibly be the basis of their relationship with each other in perpetuity. This is not to be, however, as a wrench is thrown into the mix when Michael’s helicopter goes down and the army wrongly pronounces him dead. Jannik must now grow up and become the rock his sister-in-law and nieces need, to be the man he always ran away from evolving into. And, at the same time, Michael must survive, not only a prison camp, but also life after it, dealing with the adjustment and guilt of what happened, switching places with his brother, becoming the uncontrollable loose cannon.

Bier and co-writer Anders Thomas Jensen have penned what could possibly be one of the best examples of post-traumatic disorder in cinema. Not only does one man leave jail with the need to feel remorse for what he’s done and forgive himself in order to assimilate back into society, another must cope with civilization after being reduced to an animal without rules in war. This juxtaposition makes the portrayals even more authentic by showing how the suffering and abyss of the unknown can affect both those who’ve led a life of destruction and those that have been on a moral path. Events we are put through can have devastating effect on our mental psyche, letting paranoia set in, turning us on those who we should trust implicitly. A person’s hatred for himself can seep out and project onto those we love, pleading with himself that they may also be as broken as him. When rock bottom has been hit, the only comfort can come in the transgressions of those around you; anything to make the horrors you’ve done seem somewhat less unimaginable.

But words in a script cannot convey these emotions and events without the vessels to bring it to us. These three actors—Ulrich Thomsen as Michael, Nikolaj Lie Kaas as Jannik, and Connie Nielsen as Sarah—are absolutely astonishing. Not only do they perform well, but they look the part too. When Thomsen picks up Kaas, we know which is the ‘good son’ and which is the ‘bad egg’. Michael is stern, yet compassionate, while Jannik is rough-edged and short-fused, scowling as he smokes when his brother can’t help but smile that his sibling is home. You believe these initial observations so completely, that when the two reverse later on, it becomes that much more devastating. The most harrowing of all, though, is in both Thomsen and Nielsen’s descent into darkness. Here are two actors that have made a nice living in English-language work—making the recasting that much more absurd—that put on a clinic of pure despair and anguish. Nielsen’s Sarah is trying to live with her husband’s death, confusing the kindness of her brother-in-law, a man she never really liked, for more, and then has to go through the wringer of emotion when Michael is found to be alive. And Thomsen is unforgettable in his scenes of captivity in the Middle East, as well as trapped in his own head back home.

Bier is a pro here, getting all her actors to bring everything they have to the film, even the little girls showing fear for those they love, and creating a beautiful piece of art. I’m not quite sure why so much of the movie is vignetted—at first I thought it was a way of showing sights through a character’s eyes, soon proven to not be the case—but the aesthetic result is gorgeous. With such a soft image, the rough and tumble actions of violence and fear are more memorable when showed in an almost dream-like state. She is definitely a director to keep on your radar and I can’t wait to check out the film she made next, After the Wedding. I hear a remake of that one might be in the works too, but hopefully we in America will one day wake up to the fact we aren’t alone in this world and finally, voluntarily, watch a foreign film, giving their creators the accolades and praise already earned internationally.

Brødre [Brothers] 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½


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