The Danish director Susanne Bier tells three types of stories in her aptly-cum-misleadingly titled drama Brothers, two of them highly conventional (but not necessarily unrewarding), and one of them so profound that it's no wonder she doesn't quite know what to do with it.
The titular siblings in Bier's film are Michael (Ulrich Thomsen), the redoubtable elder who's married to Sarah and has two young daughters, and Jannik, who's scruffy and unemployed and still lives in their parents' home. Michael is going off to Afghanistan -- Denmark, you've surely forgotten, joined the Coalition of the Willing -- and he's naturally worried about leaving behind his family, especially his prodigal brother. Jannik (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) spent time in jail for assaulting a woman, and now Michael wants him to apologize to her. He's even done so himself on his brother's behalf, which infuriates Jannik just before Michael ships out.
Then, in Afghanistan, Michael's helicopter goes down. He's presumed dead, his family is notified, and they grieve in various ways: anger, withdrawal, hysteria, unity, you name it. Only later do they learn that Michael survived in a rebel prison camp, where something happened that forced him to decide just how desperately he wanted to live. This choice naturally reverberates when he goes home after his rescue, which occurs, like bad narrative clockwork, in the scene immediately following his life-altering moment.
From a dramatic point of view, Bier's problem is that she's so good and thorough at presenting her characters' realistic situations, frequently with intimate extreme close-ups. After Jannik and his father, tense and grief-stricken, bicker at Michael's memorial service, they apologize the next day and talk about it (Jannik more so than his old-school, don't-look-back dad). After Sarah and Jannik furtively kiss during a lonely interlude, they conclude that it was a harmless mistake born of their shared loss (which it genuinely was), and not a sign of a budding sexual attraction.
Bier's choices in these matters are always sound -- her co-scenarist is the young writer/director Anders Thomas Jensen, who made The Green Butchers and Open Hearts -- but after a while they cease to be compelling, if only because their unguarded honesty begins to feel too carefully orchestrated. So when, halfway through the film, something horrifying happens to Michael in his Afghani prison camp, Bier needs to switch voices, but of course she can't (or just doesn't).
The consequence is a film that remains literal when it needs to become more internal, and also one that tries to comprehend the incomprehensible. (Bier's ironies are naked, and thus uninteresting.) I confess that I may be overthinking Brothers. Still, something about it feels a bit off. But at least it left me challenged and slightly disturbed by a turn of events that would make a great movie some day. In Danish, with subtitles.