Empathy must come as naturally as breathing to the Irishman Jim Sheridan, director of My Left Foot, In America, and now the overpoweringly intimate Brothers. Working with screenwriter David Benioff (25th Hour), he skips among three protagonists and emotional states without losing the story’s pulse: Every narrative beat is also a heartbeat. Tobey Maguire and Jake Gyllenhaal are Sam and Tommy Cahill, one an upright Army captain on his way back to Afghanistan, the other a delinquent newly paroled after a three-year sentence for robbery. Natalie Portman is Sam’s ex-cheerleader wife, Grace, who can barely stand the sight of Tommy. The extended family features Sam Shepard as the brothers’ alcoholic ex-Army dad, Mare Winningham as their stepmother, and Bailee Madison and Taylor Geare as Sam’s young daughters. Despite the title, the movie’s center, its fulcrum, isn’t the brothers but the whole teetering clan. When, early on, Sam’s chopper goes down in Afghanistan and word comes back that he’s dead, the family structure collapses and is slowly rebuilt, the pieces rearranging themselves in strange new ways. Sheridan gets inside his characters’ heads without ever viewing them in isolation: Even separated by continents, no one can move without hitting someone else.
Who could have guessed that the stars who made their names as nerd heroes Peter Parker and Donnie Darko could be so credibly messed-up and volatile? Maguire isn’t big, but his tautness radiates strength. Sam loves his family, but he’s driven to be with “his men”: Single-mindedness is his goal. When he’s captured and thrown in a pit with a private named Joe Willis (Patrick Flueger), he coldly orders the man to forget his family—to forget everything but his name and rank—and the question as he’s starved and tortured is whether he’s as impregnable as he thinks he is. At times, Brothers is like a less-mythical (and -pretentious) The Deer Hunter, with Maguire even managing to suggest something of Robert De Niro when he was young and thin and wired—when you could see his every cell react.
As to the other two leads, Sheridan has gotten the best performances of their young lives. As much as I like Gyllenhaal, I’ve often found him fuzzy, as if he’s wary of losing control. Is that why he’s so affecting here? The dissolute Tommy turns out to be as tightly wound as his older brother, only too scared to focus. He looks pitifully vulnerable as he the supposedly dead Sam’s family and becomes protective. Portman has the kind of role that turns actresses into dullards: the wife who stands and looks stricken at her man (or men) in paroxysms of rage and grief. But she’s so grounded that as the others carry on, your eyes keep drifting to her. Yes, she’s almost unbearably pretty, but it’s her immediacy that keeps you glued to her face.
Sheridan pulls you so deep into Brothers so fast that there isn’t time for the alarm bell to go off that says: “Warning! Another Traumatized-Vet Movie!” You never catch Sheridan or Benioff grandstanding, only observing. (Brothers is based on a 2004 Danish film I haven’t seen, but unlike most such remakes, it feels organic.) The cinematographer Fred Elmes uses color to convey inner states without calling attention to itself, and Jay Cassidy’s editing in two fraught dinner-table scenes is so exquisitely calibrated it’s as if the cuts were generated by the characters’ psyches. The crosscurrents keep you scanning the frame, from Shepard’s subtly vibrating features (he’s never been better) to the lovely girls, each with her own distinct reaction. In the role of Private Willis’s wife, a blonde actress I couldn’t place was so real I scribbled something about her being a star someday. Too late: Carey Mulligan has already wowed audiences in An Education. I liked her better here. She’s not as dazzling, but she doesn’t have to exaggerate her naïveté. Sheridan’s actors work with their intellects fully engaged—and they engage us on levels we barely knew we had.
Up in the Air has a confident hum. George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, a man who specializes in flying from city to city to inform workers they’ve been laid off, help manage their emotions, and hand them their “packet”—severance, COBRA, etc. On the side, he gives motivational speeches on lightening the metaphorical backpack of one’s life. Bingham tells us in voice-over that he’s only at home in the air, and that in the past year he has spent 322 days on the road and “43 miserable days” in his nearly bare Omaha apartment. He’s cool, sharp, brisk—but we can see where the movie’s headed from 3,000 miles away. Bingham has to learn that connections aren’t just things you make in airports.