The Danish filmmaker Suzanne Bier's gripping psychological drama Brothers is her second film to examine events worthy of Greek tragedy through a contemporary therapeutic lens. This is not to suggest that the traumas the main characters in both films suffer are any less devastating than those that leave the stage littered with corpses at the end of a classic play, or that either film goes soft and mushy with healing psychobabble, but that modern life offers alternatives to life-and-death solutions; in both films, those solutions are neither easy nor assured.
In Open Hearts, her first collaboration with the screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen, and in Brothers, a man's life is abruptly shattered by a sudden, fateful event. The protagonist of the earlier movie is a vigorous young athlete about to be married, who is paralyzed from the neck down in a freak accident. Michael (Ulrich Thomsen), the wounded hero of Brothers, is an officer in the Danish contingent of UN forces in Afghanistan. After his truck crashes, he is presumed dead. Captured by guerrillas, he is imprisoned and forced to carry out an atrocity that leaves him a broken man. When he returns to his wife, Sarah (Connie Nielsen), and two daughters in Denmark, he is seething with rage and guilt.
With a fine balance of compassion and hardheadedness, both movies explore the shattering of an illusion entertained by men, more than by women, of their godlike autonomy, and their reflexive fury at its sudden loss. In Open Hearts, fate arrives with the swing of a car door. In Brothers, it is an enemy captor's nonnegotiable demand that a soldier, to save his own life, violate every principle of wartime behavior that has been instilled in him.
Directed by: Susanne Bier
Starring: Connie Nielsen (Sarah), Ulrich Thomsen (Michael) Nikolaj Lie Kaas (Jannik), Sarah Juel Werner (Natalia), Rebecca Lostrup (Camilla), Bent Mejding (Henning), Solbjog Hofeldt (Else), Niels Olsen (Allentoft)
Running time: 110 minutes
Taiwan Release: Today
Onto this already anguished scenario, Brothers grafts a volatile family dynamic straight out of R. D. Laing. Michael, a virtuous straight arrow and family man, is his father's favorite of two sons. His younger brother, Jannik (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), is a drunken wastrel who, as the movie begins, has just been released from prison after committing a petty crime.
Without straining for effect, Brothers shows you how comfortably (and unconsciously) the two brothers act out their assigned roles of good son and bad son. As much as Jannik loves Michael, he bitterly resents him. For his part, Michael plays Jannik's magnan-imous caretaker with a little too much self-regard for comfort.
Michael's presumed death changes the balance of power virtually overnight, and Jannik begins to blossom. In his brother's absence, he becomes a surrogate father to Michael's two daughters. And he and Sarah form a friendship that momentarily slips into something more (a tentative kiss) from which both withdraw in embarrassment, viewing their lapse as an expression of their shared love for Michael. When Michael arrives home, distraught, guilty and no longer in total control, the changed balance of power triggers his suspicion and boiling jealousy.
We have all observed families whose members act out their designated roles (as Laing theorized) in a psychodrama that functions as a closed system. One reason Brothers is such a harrowing experience to watch is that Michael's increasingly irrational behavior rings so painfully true. Only at the very end does the movie, which is determined not to be a closed Laingian system, seem a bit tentative.