Based on Ian McEwan’s equally stirring novel we begin the story in 1935 on the cusp of WWII. Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan) a 13-year-old fledgling writer lives with her wealthy family in their enormous English country mansion and on one hot summer day she irrevocably changes the course of three lives including her own. It seems the housekeeper’s son Robbie Turner (James McAvoy) carries a torch for Briony’s older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley). And on this warm day it becomes clear she feels the same way; their love ignites. Little Briony who harbors her own secret crush on Robbie witnesses the beginnings of this love affair and not understanding its meaning feels compelled to interfere going so far as accusing Robbie of a crime he did not commit. He is arrested and whisked away eventually forced into the British army but thankfully the two lovers have a moment before he goes to war to reconnect. Cecilia promises to wait for him urging him to “come back” to her once the madness he is about to become immersed in is over. Meanwhile Briony (played in adult years by Romola Garai and Vanessa Redgrave) has grown up regretting every single moment of that fateful day and in desperately trying to seek forgiveness finally finds a path to understanding the power of enduring love. The performances in Atonement are nothing less than captivating beginning with the young Irish rose Saoirse Ronan (who is also set to play the lead in Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones). Since it is primarily Briony’s story Ronan must make the first most indelible impression and set the tone for the rest of the movie--and she succeeds on every level. From the moment you see Ronan’s pale face clear-blue eyes and steadfast gait you immediately recognize Briony’s need and determination to make everything in her life just so. Indeed Briony is a strongly focused child and Ronan so embodies the character an Oscar nomination is almost a certainty. As the 18-year-old Briony Garai (Dirty Dancing 2) does the best she can following such a tough act as Ronan but can never quite match the same intensity. On the other hand Redgrave who comes in at the very end as the much older Briony nails it right away adding her own nuances to a character who has lived a full life. Of course Knightley and McAvoy are no slouches either vividly capturing the passion bubbling up between Cecilia and Robbie then turning around and showing the heartache as their love is ripped apart. McAvoy is particularly effecting as his Robbie must also witness some truly horrific wartime scenes. Actually Oscar nods should come fast and furious for everyone in Atonement. With Pride & Prejudice and now Atonement director Joe Wright may have just established himself as the new James Ivory (of Merchant/Ivory fame). Wright is a real visionary for the romantic period piece expertly delivering truly spectacular vistas. From set design to costumes to cinematography the look of Atonement is at once verdant welcoming and then startlingly grim. The first half of Atonement at the Tallis’ country home is certainly the film’s most defining peppered by an effective musical score which uses the sound of a typewriter like a metronome. Through a soft lens Wright displays the general idleness of summer day at a country home like a sunny floral motif that belies an undercurrent of sweating bodies wilting flowers stagnant pools--and an imminent tragic event. Then once Wright moves with Robbie into WWII he actually paints an even more grim view of war then maybe seen before. The one continuous shot of the historical Dunkirk--a French beach on which thousands of British soldiers were forced by the Germans and then waited to be evacuated--is absolutely stunning and surreal. Atonement does drag ever-so-slightly in the middle especially as Briony trains to be a nurse in London but overall this is a film Academy voters eat up with a silver spoon. Expect to be hearing about it in the months to come.
The Mercer brothers--hotheaded Bobby (Mark Wahlberg) family man Jeremiah (Andre Benjamin) pretty boy Angel (Tyrese Gibson) and troubled Jack (Garrett Hedlund)--owe their lives to their adoptive mother Evelyn (Fionnula Flanagan). Even though they've all gone their separate--and not necessarily straight and narrow--paths none of them would have made it to adulthood if their beloved mother hadn't been there to guide them. So when she's killed in a seemingly random grocery store holdup the grieving four brothers reunite to find out just exactly what went down. Of course the rest of the plot--something to do with a business deal gone awry crooked cops and one mean mother of a street kingpin--is really superfluous. It's really just about the Mercer brothers kicking some serious ass and taking no prisoners.
The cast holds up. Wahlberg--whose carving a nice little career for himself by starring in action-packed ensemble pieces (The Italian Job Three Kings)--takes immediate charge as the eldest brother who punches first and asks questions later. Gibson (2 Fast 2 Furious) a Singleton staple plays his usual smooth operator who gets more than he deserves just because he looks so good. Hedlund (Friday Night Lights) also does a nice job as the youngest Mercer a kid who was deeply scarred before Evelyn got a hold of him. The standout however is André Benjamin aka André 3000 from the hip-hop group OutKast. The singer-turned-actor gives a layered performance as Jeremiah a man who has tried to stay on the up and up for his family's sake but manages to get involved with the wrong people anyway. What makes Four Brothers rise slightly above the usual fare is the tangible camaraderie between the four actors. They each have individual moments remembering their mother but together they easily convey years of growing up in this loving household razzing each other only like brothers can. So when the crap really hits the fan you're hooked truly caring who lives and who dies.
Four Brothers is definitely a welcome throwback--and director John Singleton looks like he relishes every nostalgic moment. It's loosely based on John Wayne's The Sons of Katie Elder but Singleton also adds in elements from those '70s payback flicks he loves so well á la Death Wish and Shaft (which Singleton remade with Samuel L. Jackson). These movies have nothing to do with an engaging plot; it's just about exacting revenge. Plain and simple. Of course you know deep down it's wrong to root for these so-called vigilantes whose morals are tenuous who should let the cops do their jobs. But who are we kidding? We just want to see them annihilate all the evil wrongdoers without giving them any chance. Singleton understands this. Setting his movie in a frozen Detroit he focuses his attention on what's important. From a thrilling car chase over icy snow-packed streets to a rather lengthy and bloody but seat-gripping shootout Four Brothers doesn't let up. And even though you may walk out with a headache you're glad to know at least why.