Most things may never happen, but this one will -- by the time the 2010 Oscars roll around Irish film director Jim Sheridan, 59, will not only be basking in a slew of nominations, he’s likely to be carrying one home.
Sheridan’s certainly no stranger to the red carpet. His celebrated films like “In America,” “My Left Foot” and “In The Name of the Father” have between them received no less than six previous Academy Award nominations (“My Left Foot” won two) but next year will probably be the year he collects an Oscar for best director.
It’s not difficult to make this prediction. “Brothers,” Sheridan’s latest and most accomplished work to date, finds a way to skillfully address some of the most momentous questions now facing the U.S., but on a human scale, and in the process he inspires some unforgettable performances from his stellar cast.
As the film opens Sheridan (who began his career as a playwright in Dublin before becoming an artistic director at the Irish Arts Center in New York in the 1980s) takes his time setting up the storyline, introducing us to the main protagonists at a leisurely pace.
When straight shooter Sam Cahill (Maguire), a decorated Marine, is shipped out to Afghanistan on his fourth tour of duty, he goes missing when his Black Hawk helicopter is shot down in the mountains. At home his family are quickly informed that he’s been killed and his black sheep brother Tommy (Gyllenhaal) attempts to fill in the void that been created by the loss.
To his own surprise, and to the surprise of his brother’s wife and children, Tommy turns out to be a natural. He quickly assumes a newfound responsibility for himself and his extended family. Grieving over their shared loss brings Tommy and Grace (Portman) together, and the bond threatens to turn romantic.
But it turns out that Sam isn’t dead. He returns to the U.S. looking frail, careworn and brutalized by what he’s been through.
Worse, he suspects his wife and his brother have fallen in love. Add a guilt wracked conscience and post traumatic stress disorder to this powder keg and the film powers forward with a deepening sense of menace.
“When a war’s on everything becomes propaganda and I just had to be careful, you know,” Sheridan tells IrishCentral’s sister publication the Irish Voice. “Here’s a situation where a soldier has to choose between heroic suicide and living. He chooses life. That’s a story and a consequence I can work with.”
Sheridan is also clear about why he has decided this time to premiere his film in the U.S. rather than Europe (“In America,” his 2003 film opened in England where it was slated by the critics, an experience that has taught Sheridan a valuable lesson).
“A movie has to open in America before it goes back home. They made the mistake of opening ‘Once’ and ‘The Crying Game’ in Ireland, and they did no business.
“It’s only when it exists within the American framework that it exists as a movie. What people think is we never heard of that, it didn’t open in America, so it can’t be a real movie.”
Sibling rivalry drives a lot of the action in “Brothers,” and it’s a theme that Sheridan can deeply identify with himself.
“I think there was a lot of vying for attention in our own family in Dublin, so it’s fairly easy for me to transfer that into an American family,” says Sheridan.
“Those scenes with Jake and Sam Shepard (the noted playwright and actor), they’re just me and my dad. That’s all that is you know? I kind of understood where these characters were coming from.”
The intensity of the connection between the two “Brothers” in the film, and the way their affection can spill so easily over into violence was something that Sheridan feels is more Irish that American, and he had his work cut out persuading his two male leads to roll with it.
“Jake had some problems with a few scenes because I’m not sure it’s a natural part of the American kid growing up to fight as much as we do in Ireland,” says Sheridan.
“But the Cahills are an Irish American family so I felt like pushing it in that direction. I think the setup is very Irish too.”
Sheridan knows all about the long history of the Irish in the U.S. armed forces, and so the banter between the two “Brothers” and their father in the film reminds him of chats he had with his own dad in Ireland.
“’You’re like a parrot,’” my Dad would say to me, ‘you mimic everything. Why not mimic your brother?’ I can still hear him saying it to me. With that tone in his voice that said it all. The father in those scenes sounds exactly like my own,” Sheridan feels.
In the process of making “Brothers” Sheridan noticed that each of the movies he makes often have a theme that involves putting a family back together. It’s an impulse that comes directly from his own experience of personal tragedy, and his desire to set it right.
“In my own family what happened was that my brother died. We had a lodging house and at the moment of death all the neighbors were coming in and my dad was crying with them, but not with my ma,” recalls Sheridan.
“I was annoyed with him about that; I felt that that he was breaking up the nuclear family. From that and other things I seem to have developed this need to put the family back together.”
Gyllenhaal admits that he was very challenged by the script (“Brothers” is a remake of the Danish language film “Brodre,” this time directed by an Irishman).
“Just coming from Ireland it was interesting how Jim thought my character would act compared to my own American take,” Gyllenhaal says. “There’s a moment in the film when Natalie’s character tells mine that my brother is dead, and Jim suggested I fall on the ground and make snow angels. I said to him very quietly I don’t know if an American would react like that.”
For Maguire, the decision to get involved in “Brothers” was down to the strength of the script and the talent involved.
“I wanted to do a film that shines a light on a subject that we don’t really talk enough about,” he says.
“My character is all buttoned up and quiet about his war experiences. I think he doesn’t relate that well to his wife and children, and I think he’s living a facsimile of a life. He’s much more at home with his military family and much more comfortable at war. And it’s killing him.”
What happens to Maguire’s character puts him in such crisis that it becomes a live or die gamble. It also makes “Brothers” one of the most searing films about war and its consequences to have come along in years. With its tension and its stellar cast it is also likely to avoid the lack of interest shown to other recent films that address the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“It definitely felt like it was about family to me, whether you define it to be about blood relatives or your husband, your battalion or your family,” says Portman. “It’s about what you sacrifice in order to protect that family.
“I remember Jim describing it to me as a woman’s fantasy film. I have Tobey Maguire and Jake Gyllenhaal in love with me and I want both of them. For that reason and many more it was a terrific experience making it.”
“Brothers” opens nationwide on December 4.