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Susanne Bier (director)

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Nov 12, 2009
Category: Drama

Once upon a time in Denmark, there was a good brother and a bad brother.

When we meet them, Jannik, the bad brother, is just getting out of prison — he’s such a screwup he failed even at bank robbery.

Michael, the good brother, has a beautiful wife, two perfect daughters and a purpose: He’s an Army officer about to go to Afghanistan to direct a reconstruction program.
And the good brother leaves, and, right off, his helicopter is shot down in Afghanistan, and an Army representative has the unhappy duty of knocking on the door of his home and delivering the ultimate bad news to his wife.

The grieving is intense. And ugly. The father of the brothers stands six inches from the face of his bad son and announces, “Now I have nothing.”

I would crumble. But the bad son rallies. There’s a void that needs to be filling, and he steps up. Plays with the little girls. Builds new kitchen cabinets. Consoles the widow.
The bad brother becomes a better brother.
And then the dead brother returns home — alive and damaged.
Mayhem follows.

Brothers was easily the most powerful film I saw in 2005. It was directed by Susanne Bier, who directed the most powerful film I saw in 2007, After the Wedding. If you saw them back to back, you’d know they were by the same filmmaker — I can’t think of another director who chooses such nakedly emotional stories and then delivers every big emotional moment they contain — with hand-held cameras, at close range — with such total fearlessness.

The result: movies that matter. Are they pleasant to watch? Not in the way you’re used to. They don’t go out of their way to deliver happy endings. There’s no stirring, manipulative soundtrack to make the big moments familiar. But these movies do something that most films don’t — they have you on the edge of your seat, and for more than a few minutes during a big action scene.

These movies work precisely because they’re so tough to watch — in the way, that is, that real life can be tough. The trouble the characters are in, it’s real trouble, not movie trouble. A soldier brings the war home. Happens every day. And we imagine what that’s like for his wife, their kids, friends and family — but we have no clue. Because every veteran is different. And, of course, because the wars we fight now are so different from our lives at home that we have no idea what happens there.

Except in “Brothers”. Something terrible happens in Afghanistan, and we see it. And it is so bad your hand goes to your face in horror and sadness.  The good brother can never forget it. Neither will you.

It takes great acting to make a movie like this play out as if it’s reality TV — as if the director somehow gained the rights to the story of a family unraveling and a new family emerging. Ulrich Thomsen and Nikolaj Lie Kaas aren’t actors known to us; they should be. And Connie Nielsen as the wife is just sensational; it’s impossible to believe she usually appears in Hollywood blockbusters.

 “Brothers” was remade for an American audience, and will open in early December. It is directed by Jim Sheridan, who did such great work on In America. From the trailer, it looked promising:

Or rather, it looks great — until you see a trailer for Bier’s version:

I’d get my hands on a DVD of Bier’s movie first. It will hurt you to watch it. You may feel, after, that your body has been beaten. Your nerves will be frayed. You will weep, and you may weep more when you leave the theater. But I promise you: It’s all good. Indeed, it’s the best.