DAVE DAVIES, host:
The new movie "Brothers" is a remake of a 2004 Danish film by Susanne Bier. Like the original it centers on a pair of very different siblings and the ways in which they switch roles when one comes back damaged from war. It's made by the Irish director Jim Sheridan, who made "My Left Foot" and "In America." The film stars Tobey Maguire as a Marine captain from a military family, Natalie Portman as his wife and Jake Gyllenhaal as his brother. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN: In "Brothers," Tobey Maguire and Jake Gyllenhaal are Sam and Tommy Cahill. Sam is about to be redeployed to Afghanistan to be with his men. That's what he always says, my men. Tommy is his opposite, grizzled, shambling, a drinker. He just got out of prison after three years for armed robbery. The movie is called "Brothers," but the center, the fulcrum, is the whole Cahill clan. Natalie Portman is Sam's wife, Grace, an ex-cheerleader. She barely stands the sight of Tommy.
The extended family features Sam Shepard as the brothers' alcoholic dad, who also barely stands the sight of Tommy, Mare Winningham as their patient stepmother and, as Sam's young daughters, Bailee Madison and Taylor Geare, who compete for attention and react to deadbeat Tommy in different ways. When, early on, Sam's chopper goes down in Afghanistan and word comes back he's dead, the family structure collapses -predictably. What isn't so predictable is how Tommy will react and move in to fill the gap. You certainly can't guess it from how he takes the news, when Grace catches him drunk in the middle of the night, returning keys to his brother's truck.
(Soundbite of movie, "Brothers")
Mr. JAKE GYLLENHAAL (Actor): (As Tommy Cahill) Grace. I'm sorry, I didn't mean to wake you. Look, you know, just say it, you know what I mean, all right. He told me I could borrow the car whenever I want.
Ms. NATALIE PORTMAN (Actor): (As Grace Cahill) Sam's dead.
(Soundbite of sobbing)
Mr. GYLLENHAAL: (As Tommy) What are you talking about?
Ms. PORTMAN: (As Grace) He's dead, Tommy, (unintelligible).
Mr. GYLLENHAAL: (As Tommy) Why didn't you call me? Why'd you let him go over there, Grace?
Ms. PORTMAN: (As Grace) Tommy.
Mr. GYLLENHAAL: (As Tommy) Well, what now, huh?
EDELSTEIN: It's not a spoiler to say top-billed Tobey Maguire does not, in fact, die in the first 15 minutes. But for much of "Brothers," he's thought by his family to be dead. Director Jim Sheridan skips among the three protagonists - Sam in Afghanistan, and Tommy and Grace back home -but he never loses the story's pulse. That's because the story isn't Sam or Tommy or Grace individually but the family unit. It's how Sam's actions when he's captured relate to how his dad raised him and what he owes Grace. And how Tommy's assumption of responsibility is partly because Grace is so pretty and her older daughter so needy, and partly to prove something to his dad that he couldn't when Sam was alive.
Who'd have guessed 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 physically, but his tautness radiates power. Responsibility is his mantra. When he's thrown in a pit with one of his men, he coldly orders the soldier to forget his family, forget everything but his name. But as we jump back to Sam's wife and daughters, we wonder, can he really forget his own?
Sheridan has gotten the best performances from his other two leads of their lives. Gyllenhaal's Tommy turns out to be as tightly wound as his brother, only too scared to focus. He looks pitifully vulnerable as he begins to take on his brother's role. Natalie Portman has the kind of part that turns actresses into dullards, the wife who looks stricken while her man rages. But she's so grounded, so in the moment that as others carry on, your eyes keep drifting to her.
Sheridan pulls you in so deep, so fast, there isn't time for the alarm to go off that says, warning, another traumatized vet movie. It is that, ultimately, but it doesn't stop dead for Maguire to emote. The crosscurrents keep you scanning the frame, to watch the subtly vibrating face of Shepard, who's never been better, or the two wonderful girls. Up-and-coming English actress Carey Mulligan has a small role, and I liked her better than in her showier turn in the film "An Education," where she has to exaggerate her character's naivete.
Actors in Sheridan's movies are fully engaged, thinking hard in character, and you feel as if you're inside their heads. For this great director, empathy seems to come as naturally as breathing.
DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. You can download podcasts of our show at freshair.npr.org. And you can follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair.