Danish director Suzanne Bier is a devotee of Lars Von Trier’s Dogme ethos and its constraints'natural lighting, naturalistic storytelling and the like'but she doesn’t use Dogme as a crutch. Her two films would work in any circumstances with any kind of lighting, because her screenplays sparkle with sharp, complex characters in compelling situations. She makes melodrama, but I mean that in a very good way.
Her latest, Brothers, spins a winding story involving two brothers and a war into a compelling morality play; it also incorporates current events with a lucidity that’s usually lost in Dogme, which too often seems the domain of European mad-film scientists, slaving away on their woodcut illustrations of human emotion in a basement with all the lights turned off. Even when Brothers gets a bit turgid in the final act, we’re swept along by an easy identification with this small family’s portentous past and uncertain future.
When Michael (Ulrich Thomsen) picks up his brother Jannik (Nikolaj Lie Kass) from jail on the day of his release for robbing a bank, we quickly understand the roles in this family. Michael, a major in the Danish army who’s determined to be correct and morally irreproachable, wants Jannik to make a phone call, apologizing to the woman he clocked at the bank. Jannik, nursing a hangover and a scraggly beard, seems to have no intention of ever doing anything right, because that’s his role in the family dynamic. If you don’t know somebody just like this, I feel very happy for you.
Michael soon leaves for a tour of duty in Afghanistan, bidding goodbye to his two daughters and his wife, Sarah (Connie Nielsen of Gladiator and Basic). Almost as soon as he arrives, his helicopter is shot down into a lake in a scene that’s more beautiful than almost anything in the Dogme-influenced canon. We quickly learn Michael hasn’t been killed, but only taken prisoner. Unaware, they hold a funeral back home.
While Michael is locked in a bunker with ridiculously sadistic Afghan guards who force him to make unspeakable choices, his family moves ahead'and with no prelude or commentary, Jannik gradually changes himself into a responsible human being who can be a help to Sarah and her daughters. He decided to finish a renovation of the family’s kitchen, and since everybody over here now associates Northern Europe with inexpensive home furnishings, it’s an apt intercontinental metaphor for the construction of nice family bonds with funny names.
When Michael eventually is released from captivity, that’s when Bier really gets to work. Michael is a shattered mess of the guy he used to be; in addition to that haunted stare of post-traumatic stress disorder, he’s got active suspicions about his brother and his wife. Much of the third act is operatic arguments'some more interesting than others'in the new kitchen, and Bier seems to revel in the raw emotions of such domestic conflict. Jannik’s transformation would be a bit suspect if Bier hadn’t patiently spread it out over so many scenes, but Michael’s changes are depressingly easy to understand.
Bier’s first film, Open Hearts, was about a young man who’s paralyzed from the neck down in an accident shortly before he’s supposed to be married. The director dived into that emotional abyss with glee, plumbing every conflict in the couple’s shifting feelings about each other, in a film that seemed more anthropological than emotional. In Brothers, all three lead actors are outstanding in chewy roles, and Bier seems to know her characters better as well. She has spent more time thinking about them, and she knows exactly what she wants from the story. In another Dogme-flavored twist, those desires don’t include an easy ending. This story goes on well after the final credits, and that’s fascinating to ponder.