BROTHERS (BRØDRE) (Susanne Bier, 2004)
Told predominantly through handheld close-ups, Danish director Susanne Bier's intimate drama BROTHERS (BRØDRE) examines the cost of war on the domestic front. Military officer Michael (Ulrich Thomsen) is the good son in the family, especially in comparison to his layabout brother Jannik (Nikolaj Lie Kaas). Michael has what parents wish for their children--a respected position of authority and responsibility at work and a loving family of his own--while Jannik's established relationships are with the law and the bottle.
Shortly after Michael is called to serve in Afghanistan, a mistaken report returns to Denmark that he was killed when his helicopter was downed during a rescue mission. Perhaps without realizing what he's doing, Jannik cleans up his act and starts taking Michael's place with his brother's grieving family. He and some acquaintances complete the kitchen remodeling that Michael left unfinished. Soon Jannik is regularly staying at their home and becoming a surrogate father to his brother's two girls. There's also an unspoken, and mostly unacted upon, attraction between Jannik and his sister-in-law Sarah (Connie Nielsen).
During this time insurgents have held Michael hostage and forced him to choose between obeying his training and clawing to stay alive. Eventually British troops overtake the camp where he's kept. They deliver him home as a man resurrected but fundamentally changed. Haunted by his actions, Michael struggles to assimilate to civilian life and becomes suspicious of the connections forged among Jannik, Sarah, and his daughters.
BROTHERS' plot sounds similar to PEARL HARBOR, but Bier's psychologically complex melodrama bears little resemblance to the spectacle and saccharine love story of Michael Bay's film. The camera holds on Thomsen, Kaas, and Nielsen's faces for signs of the internal turmoil their characters experience. Neither Michael, Jannik, nor Sarah can be faulted for finding themselves in this complicated scenario, which raises the triangle's dramatic tension to an almost unbearable level. Each of the three primary actors' subtle but powerful performances pull the viewer into their corners at times and then get yanked away by another. Bier and screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen balance the needs and motivations of all three so that discerning the best outcome is unclear.
The DV cinematography gives a fuzzy quality to the images, a flourish that emphasizes the characters' confusion. Bier uses a palette of dark tones to express the emotions buried inside them. The three protagonists act and react in primal ways, and the predominance of deep browns, reds, and blacks reflect the raw nature of their interior lives. Only when Michael can finally reveal his darkest secret does the image gain a bright cast, a lovely pink glow that could have come from a Douglas Sirk film. Contrary to convention, Bier cuts from close-up to long shot during Michael's confession. After spending nearly two hours up close with these people, there is no need to see their faces. We know what his admission means.
(Review originally appeared in a slightly different form as part of my Deep Focus Film Fest day 2 coverage)