3 stars (out of 4)
"You won't encounter anything you haven't trained for," Michael (Ulrich Thomsen) tells his Danish troops right before they deploy in Afghanistan.
In "Brothers," a chilling drama of a fractured family during wartime, director Susanne Bier picks apart such hubris while exploring familiar thematic turf.
Bier, who directed 2002's "Open Hearts," teams with screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen (who penned that year's "Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself"). Both films, especially "Wilbur," deal with displaced affections when one brother assumes the patriarchal role in the absence of the other.
In "Brothers," Bier expands on this theme, as Michael's wife, Sarah ("Gladiator's" Connie Nielsen), and his brother Jannik ("Open Hearts'" Nikolaj Lie Kaas) grow closer when Michael is missing and presumed dead. Jannik, recently released from jail on a robbery charge, fills the family's black-sheep role and constantly fights with his father.
But when crisis hits, Jannik assumes more responsibility and steps in to finish Sarah's kitchena chance to redeem himself and feel useful to the family. In doing so, he becomes a father figure to Michael's children, preparing birthday gifts for Sarah with them and becoming the play pal their father couldn't.
Meanwhile, Michael wastes away in an enemy prison camp, finding that his training didn't prepare him for everything. Survival at all costs may cost him his soul.
Even though "Brothers" includes Jannik's brief tirade of opposition to the occupation of Afghanistan, the film isn't explicitly political. Director Bier remains more interested in the impact of war on individual characters. "Brothers' " could take place in any time period, really, but the current global political climate gives it a palpable immediacy.
A talented director of ensembles and intimate scenes, Bier again proves herself a powerful, if occasionally overwrought, dramatist. A grainy, Dogma 95-like video stock adds dramatic authenticity to the family's interactions, as if each exchange is being captured rather than staged. With the magnetic, brooding presence of Kaas, Bier is able to maintain dramatic tension with the smallest gestures, as when Jannik and Sarah share a cigarette while talking about Michael.
As a title, "Brothers" might be slightly off, since Michael and Jannik share only a few scenes. While the film's strength lies in an ensemble effort, it's really Sarah and Jannik who provide the film with its most compelling characters, its momentum and, ultimately, its heart.
Directed by Susanne Bier; screenplay by Anders Thomas Jensen; story by Bier and Jensen; cinematography by Morten Søborg; production design Viggo Bentzon; music by Johan Söderqvist; edited by Pernille Bech Christensen; produced by Peter Aalbæk Jensen and Sisse Graum Jørgensen. In Danish with English subtitles. An IFC Films release; opens Friday at Landmark's Century Centre Cinema. Running time: 1:50. MPAA rating: R (for violence, language and brief nudity).
Sarah - Connie Nielsen
Michael - Ulrich Thomsen
Jannik - Nikolaj Lie Kaas
Henning - Bent Mejding
Else - Solbjørg Højfeldt
Natalie - Sarah Juel Werner