In the News
Sheridan, Jim, director. Brothers. Lionsgate, 2009, https://www.amazon.com/Brothers-Jake-Gyllenhaal/dp/B0039NAN0M.
Brothers (2009) tells the story of Captain Sam Cahill and his struggle with War trauma after returning from Afghanistan following a harrowing capture. During his time in captivity by a nameless band of Afghanistan Rebels, Sam endures torture as well as pressure to denounce his country. Although he holds out for a large period of time with a private under his command, Joe, he is ultimately caves to pressure when he is told that he can either kill Joe or be killed and never see his family again. This single act of murder will stay to haunt Sam for the rest of the film.While he has been away, his wife, Grace, and brother, Tommy, begin to cling to each other for support after they are told Sam has died in the line of duty. They help build each other back up following Sam's tragic loss and it is implied that they begin to have feeling from each other. Just as everyone back home has started to heal, Sam is rescued and returns, catching himself, his brother and his wife in an uncomfortable love triangle.
To the film's credit, it does hint at various forms of PTSD apart from the obvious reaction Sam has towards the end of the movie, when he has a full mental break and begins smashing up his newly renovated kitchen and turning a gun on the brother he feels betrayed him. Many of the other characters, even before Sam heads off to Afghanistan, are hinted at having PTSD: Sam and Tommy's father is a Vietnam Veteran who could not speak to his wife after returning from war, resorted to domestic violence and often was neglectful of his sons, particularly Tommy. Tommy, for his part, demonstrates elements of Complex PTSD around his father, who he appears uncomfortable when approaching. Throughout the film he is seen both seeking his praise and trying to escape him, rarely looking his father in the eye. Arguably, it is these understated signs of PTSD which are more interesting than the in-your-face version of PTSD we see later in the movie.
One rather interesting thing to note is that we never see any of Sam's flashbacks. Rather, the story is told from the perspective of Tommy and Grace in a lot of respects. We see Sam behaving in a depersonalized manner, we see him snap and start to smash things, replicating the same actions he performed when killing his comrade, Joe. When Tommy comes in and holds his brother, we see him start to relax, somewhat until he realizes that Tommy is simply trying to restrain him long enough for Grace to get herself and the kids out of the house before Sam can kill them. We see that trapping sensation fully drive Sam over the edge as he struggles to break from Tommy's arms, yet at no point do we see or hear literal reference to his trauma from his perspective.
The closest we really get to being inside Sam's head is through the sound design. A few times we hear things go quiet or muted as Tommy reaches the peak of his madness, but the best use of sound, and the closest thing to a trigger we are witness to occurs at this daughter's sixth birthday. His elder daughter, Isabelle (played by Bailee Madison), upset with her father's unnerving presence since his return, starts playing with one of the balloons. The squeaking from the contact between balloon and skin is loud, screechy and almost painful. The responses to the squeak from all other members of the table treats the sound as a little annoying, yet not the grating throbbing sound the audience hears alongside Sam. At a certain point, when the balloon has drowned out the sounds of anything else at the table, Sam abruptly reaches across the table and aggressively pops the balloon, prompting his daughters to tears.
The ending of the film does address the core of Sam's PTSD: Killing his subordinate Joe. It is clear that his trauma stems not from his time captured but mostly from the violent act of bludgeoning Joe to death. The final scene in the film is him admitting to his wife, under the duress of divorce, to having killed him.
In terms of where I might draw from for this piece, I think its use of sound and sound design, as triggers could be very beneficial, as could its concentration of the shame and trauma that surrounds all the players, not just the big obvious one. The movie is not bad. It does what it sets out to do, and it does so with some very fine actors leading the film and narrative. The design of the piece is mostly unimaginative, using chronological narrative, and leaving the audience mostly outside the mind of its lead character with PTSD.
This is where I differ the most in my own work, and where I think the weakness of the film lies: By not letting us experience Sam's trauma with him, at the end of the day we see a movie about a man who goes to war, gets PTSD and goes insane. While not entirely irredeemable, there is a certain pessimism from the piece about whether someone with trauma can ever go on to live a normal life. There is no attention paid to therapy, and in certain scenes it is even treated as a joke; the date that Tommy brings to his niece's birthday is treated as an air-headed bimbo who could never understand the veteran experience, even when she talks about how she thinks all veterans should have access to therapy. All of this is in spite of the fact that she is in nursing school. Sam himself tries to go back to Afghanistan immediately, and there is only a cursory mention of Sam having gone to any therapy session. We never see one on camera. It becomes very difficult, if not impossible, to empathize with Sam, and by the end I truly found myself asking why on earth Natalie Portman's character would willingly stay with him when his well adjusted, normal and sane, brother, Jake Gyllenhaal was right there waiting in the wings. The film failed to humanize the experience, even if it helped show the damaging effects trauma can have on families and the mind.