As Charlie Fineman, a New York dentist who lost his wife and three young daughters in one of the September 11 plane crashes, Adam Sandler sports a mass of bedraggled graying locks and walks with his head hung low, the sounds of the city drowned out by the Who or Bruce Springsteen blaring from his ever-present iPod. Having given up his practice and severed virtually all ties to family and friends, he scarcely leaves his apartment anymore, save for zipping around the eerily depopulated streets of lower Manhattan on his motorized scooter in the midnight hours — a ghost of a man haunting an urban graveyard. Five years on, Charlie Fineman is still in a state of shock and awe, which we know not just because his grooming and social skills have gone to pot, but because he can’t seem to stop renovating and re-renovating his kitchen — part of an unfulfilled promise to his late wife — and because he spends copious hours in front of a video game called Shadow of the Colossus, in which he can repeatedly lay waste to the evil forces he was powerless to defeat in life.

Like Spike Lee’s 25th Hour, Reign Over Me, which was written and directed by Mike Binder, is less expressly about 9/11 than about how a city and its people have tried (and in some cases failed) to reassemble their lives in its aftermath, and if Binder has a considerably heavier hand than Lee when it comes to metaphor, his movie nevertheless remains buoyant because the feelings in it are immutable and because Sandler, I think, has never before held the screen with greater intensity. A role like this is one that a lot of comic actors look for when they want to show us they can be serious with a capital “S,” and that most of them botch by overacting in the exaggerated, extroverted way of their comedy roles; they pantomime their suffering and angst as though they were reaching for big, slapstick payoffs. (Think of Robin Williams’ widower shrink in Good Will Hunting or, for that matter, virtually any of Williams’ allegedly straight roles.) But Sandler, who has always gravitated toward anger and self-loathing even in his frat-boy blockbusters, here internalizes everything until his performance takes on a muted, idiot-savant quality reminiscent of Peter Sellers in Being There or Bill Murray in Lost in Translation. He’s a passive participant in his own existence, dwelling in the shadows of a faintly remembered past and exploding in frightening arpeggios of rage whenever reality rudely taps him on the shoulder. It suggests what Paul Thomas Anderson was trying to do with Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love before that movie’s delusions of aesthetic grandeur got in the way.

Charlie Fineman is one of those troubled but goodhearted characters Hollywood movies yearn to heal or redeem or otherwise transform, and Reign Over Me offers up its potential savior in the form of Charlie’s former dental-school roommate, Alan Johnson (Don Cheadle), who bumps into Charlie by accident one night and slowly starts to reconnect with his traumatized friend. The two men bond because Alan, in his own way, feels unmoored in life, despite the loving wife (Jada Pinkett Smith) and two picture-perfect daughters waiting for him at home. On some level, he envies Charlie’s freedom and regressed adolescence, no matter the steep price he’s had to pay for them. And when Alan finally does bring himself to acknowledge the elephant in Charlie’s psychological living room, it’s not because he’s devised a magic solution to lessen the pain (e.g., a cathartic road trip to Disneyland, à la recent Sundance winner Grace Is Gone). No, Reign Over Me is too smart and too honest to peddle such bromides, and if the movie is somewhat hard to pin down, it’s because, on a key level, it’s about nothing more or less than one man’s selfless act of compassion for a wayward fellow traveler.

Reign Over Me is the ninth feature film directed by Binder, who usually writes and acts in his movies too (here he plays Sandler’s business manager, Sugarman) and whose hit-or-miss résumé includes everything from a classically executed, London-set farce (The Search for John Gissing) to a lowbrow Wayans brothers revue (Blankman) and a direct-to-video Ben Affleck vehicle (Man About Town). Binder’s name isn’t very well known in film circles, but he has an original approach to character and narrative at a time when originality is scarce in American movies, even if his films too often feel like they were scripted in one marathon session during which whatever came into Binder’s head migrated onto the page. Like his 2005 picture The Upside of Anger, which surrounded its thoughtful depiction of midlife crisis and romance with an inexplicable murder mystery and oodles of prurient sexuality, Reign Over Me takes its own series of superfluous detours, including one recurring bit about Cheadle’s efforts to fend off a nympho patient (Saffron Burrows) that feels like a discarded subplot from Binder’s canceled HBO sitcom, The Mind of the Married Man. And when Binder ill-advisedly tries to connect the movie’s disparate dots, it’s a bit like an impatient child forcing together the disjointed pieces of some ungainly jigsaw puzzle.

The upside of Binder, though, is that he rarely goes where you’re expecting, which in the case of Reign Over Me means a straight-faced third act that is surprisingly unsentimental about survivor guilt, mental illness and the inability of time (or therapy or Hollywood movies) to heal certain wounds. This, I suspect, will provide little consolation to those in the front office at Columbia Pictures (where Sandler has made most of his films) who have grown fat on the profits of Big Daddy, Mr. Deeds and 50 First Dates, or to the hormonal teenagers scouring the multiplex marquee for a good make-out movie. But it should finally lay to rest the question of whether or not Adam Sandler is to be taken seriously. I mean, Seriously.

{mosimage}Another lone figure reeling from posttraumatic stress fills the central role in the new Antoine Fuqua–directed thriller, Shooter. Named Bob Lee Swagger and played with appropriately gruff machismo by Mark Wahlberg, he’s a former Marine gunnery sergeant and scout sniper who’s also lost someone special ­— not his wife or girlfriend, but his spotter, Donnie (Lane Garrison), which in military terms is about as close as two guys can get without asking or telling. Three years ago in Ethiopia, both men were left for dead by their superiors when their “unofficial” mission got officially all fucked up. Only Swagger made it out alive.

Cut to the present and some shadowy ex-military types (led by Danny Glover) who show up on Swagger’s doorstep with a really big favor to ask: They want him to kill the president of the United States — or rather, they want him to tell them, O.J. Simpson–style, how he would kill the prez if he were to do it. Internal government intelligence, it seems, has uncovered an assassination plot timed to the president’s upcoming public appearance in Philadelphia, during which the fatal shot will be fired by an expert marksman from a distance of more than a mile. Swagger’s expertise is needed to flush the suspect out. The men in black speak of honor and duty and patriotism. “Do we let America be ruled by thugs?” they ask Swagger rhetorically. “Sure, some years we do,” he replies. Still, he agrees to take the job, even if we rightly suspect that any deal made by Glover and his oily private contractors (Elias Koteas and Rade Sherbedgia) is certain to prove a devil’s bargain.

Sure enough, Swagger soon finds himself once again trapped behind enemy lines and on the run from hostile pursuers, only this time he’s not in Africa but the City of Brotherly Love, and everyone in America (save for one rookie FBI agent and the widow of Swagger’s former spotter) thinks he just tried to cap the leader of the free world. The feature-length cat-and-mouse game that follows is nimbly executed by Fuqua (Training Day, King Arthur), who’s grown immeasurably more confident as a director since making his debut with the slapdash Chow Yun-Fat vehicle The Replacement Killers — the movie equivalent of bad Chinese takeout. Fuqua isn’t a virtuoso stylist, but he shoots the kind of lean, efficient action scenes that directors like Ted Kotcheff and John Flynn once specialized in, and the entire movie exudes a refreshingly low-tech vibe that’s of a piece with the resourcefulness of its protagonist, who can fashion a makeshift IV out of grocery-store sundries and, in what may be the most squirm-inducing act of self-medicating since Bruce Willis pulled broken glass out of his bleeding bare feet in the original Die Hard, applies a granulated astringent called QuikClot to his gaping gunshot wounds.

Wittily adapted by screenwriter Jonathan Lemkin (The Devil’s Advocate) from the first in a trilogy of Swagger novels by Pulitzer Prize–winning Washington Post film critic Stephen Hunter, Shooter is a generically titled studio action picture that turns out to be a surprisingly deft satire about Americans’ loss of faith in their government following the 2000 election, the 9/11 attacks and the ensuing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Betrayed by Uncle Sam both at home and abroad, Swagger starts to seem like the last honest exponent of old-fashioned American virtue — a John Rambo for the Bush II generation — and the more he learns about the conspiracy that has taken hold of his life, the further he sees that it reaches. He sees that everything really is about oil money and that, in the words of the movie’s fat-cat red-state senator (a wonderfully smarmy Ned Beatty), there are no heroes and villains or Democrats and Republicans, only haves and have-nots. Cannily programmed at the start of the 2008 election season, this rampantly amoral and Darwinian film persuasively argues that, in today’s America, it’s every man for himself and commerce against all. Allow me to be the first to propose: Bob Lee Swagger for President.

REIGN OVER ME | Written and directed by MIKE BINDER | Produced JACK BINDER and MICHAEL ROTENBERG | Released by Columbia Pictures | Citywide

SHOOTER | Directed by ANTOINE FUQUA | Written by JONATHAN LEMKIN, based on the novel Point of Impact by STEPHEN HUNTER | Produced by LORENZO DI BONAVENTURA and RIC KIDNEY | Released by Paramount Pictures | Citywide

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