Coming home

A Danish melodrama brings the Afghan war home, and into theaters

| June 22, 2005
It's inevitable as the turning of the earth that we will, in due time, be introduced to a sub-genre of post-9/11 dramas, replete with grieving widows, benumbed firefighters and angry soldiers. It wasn't until after the Vietnam War ended that we saw that conflict in movie theaters, beginning with Coming Home, The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now and continuing for over a decade, reaching its reductio ad absurdum in the simpering jokes of Robin Williams in 1987's Good Morning, Vietnam. In the age of a global war on terror, however, we're in the phase of Coming Home, the 1978 love triangle between Jane Fonda, paraplegic vet Jon Voight and upright officer and husband Bruce Dern. But it says something about the timidity of American movie culture that the subject is being brought to our movie theaters courtesy of Denmark.

To be sure, the seismic shock of 9/11 has been explored on television shows and off-Broadway, as well as in numerous documentaries. But Susanne Bier's Brothers is one of the first conventional Western dramas to directly explore the ways in which the actions of 19 hijackers affect a seemingly ordinary middle-class family. Bier is a skillful director who emerged from Lars von Trier's Dogme school three years ago with Open Hearts, a sensitive and complex film that explored shifting emotional alliances among people connected by a car crash. With a bigger budget and more expansive horizons this time around, Bier returns yet again to the domestic battlefield. While Brothers takes a laudable look at the struggle of an unimaginably traumatized soldier to readjust to civilian life, in the end it's an engrossing domestic melodrama that is also conveniently topical.

Despite the Danish setting, the setup of Brothers seems archetypically American. Major Michael Lundberg (Ulrich Thomsen, best known as the son with a grudge in The Celebration) is a career military man with a family out of central casting. His beautiful wife is Sarah (Connie Nielson) and they have two young daughters. We first meet Michael in the barracks, where he tells his men that they'll soon be departing for Afghanistan. Coincidentally, this day of departure is also the day Michael's brother Jannik (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) is released from prison after doing time for a violent bank robbery. Jannik is a good-looking loser--the underachieving Roger Clinton to Michael's Bill--and he seethes under Michael's condescension, quickly escaping into boozy truculence.

But when Michael disappears in a helicopter crash in the Afghan mountains and is presumed dead, Jannik begins a character renaissance that threatens to upend the established order in the family. He steps in as a surrogate father to Michael's girls, makes himself useful around the house, redeems himself to his parents and has a brief and uneasy flirtation with his sister-in-law. Unsurprisingly, when Michael returns from the dead, their fraternal roles have changed.

The emotional triangle between Sarah, Jannik and Michael forms the inner core of Brothers, with tangential reverberations with Michael and Jannik's parents and with Michael and Sarah's daughters. Sarah, grieving the loss of Michael--whom she believes to be dead--turns to the increasingly appealing Jannik, and even when Michael returns, the two young girls continue to prefer the company of their uncle. Less emphasized but no less important is Jannik's effort to redeem himself in the eyes of his parents once it appears that he is their sole remaining son. As the slowly reforming stumblebum, Kaas gives the film a most welcome jolt of restless energy even if he sometimes risks giving his luckless character too much charisma. Thomsen, meanwhile, ultimately nails the brittle rectitude of his tightly wound military man.

In the middle is Nielsen, a curious actress who is both famous and anonymous. Her highest profile role is probably as Joaquin Phoenix's sister in Gladiator, and her most adventurous outing is her corporate spy in Demonlover, Olivier Assayas' fascinating if ultimately wearisome excursion into Internet sex skullduggery. Perhaps owing to her blandly perfect beauty, she's been consistently typecast as a Pottery Barn wife in forgettable thrillers. Although Nielson grew up in Denmark, Brothers is actually her Danish film debut, albeit one that finds her playing very much to type. However, the film makes good use of her here, even acknowledging her essential dullness when Jannik teasingly tells Sarah that he used to think she was "a boring middle-class bitch."

Even if Bier casts Nielsen as the idealized wife and mother, Brothers manages to subvert the expectations we've learned at the feet of so many anodyne Hollywood families. Thomsen's upright husband could be played by any number of Hollywood's leading men, but where American movies would celebrate his strength, this Danish film explores the fragility of his masculinity. The nightmare of a male provider--particularly a military man--is to be faced with his own powerlessness, and this becomes the true subject of Bier's film. Most of Brothers is set in Denmark, but during its middle third, we also spend time with Michael as he languishes as a prisoner of a small band of Afghan enemies. In a singularly horrific episode that packs a far greater punch than the phony histrionics of The Deer Hunter, Michael is forced to commit an unforgivable atrocity--one that violates his own humanity and any conventional notions of being an officer and a gentleman.

Brothers doesn't pretend to take a sophisticated look at the global war on terrorism--the Afghans shown here could be the Vietcong, Nazis or Apaches in films from other eras. Still, the very existence of this film is a useful reminder to Americans of all the sympathetic nations that followed us into battle three and a half years ago. On its own terms, Brothers is a very good reexamination of Hollywood family conventions, in which domestic tranquility comes under attack before the father reasserts the heroic stature nature has given him. In Bier's Brothers, however, the very assumptions that prop up our notions of masculinity come under examination. What is the difference between a hero and a bum, and what is the difference between a man and a monster?

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