Synopsis – In 1850s Oregon, a gold prospector is chased by the infamous duo of assassins, the Sisters brothers.
My Take – Who doesn’t love a good old fashioned western? While the once most acclaimed genre is trying to survive a good death at the hands of the film goers as films set in the wild west, despite the presence of a likable cast and critical favor-ism, having been presently failing where it matters the most – the box office.
Joining this list of box office bombs is the first English language project from writer/director Jacques Audiard, who has previously delivered such powerful and well-crafted films as A Prophet (2009), Rust and Bone (2012), and Dheepan (2015), a near-masterpiece that doesn’t so much re-invent the Western as provides a tonal and stylistic twist to the genre.
Based on author Patrick DeWitt‘s acclaimed novel, this film is a sharp, affecting, and fun story that climbs mountains, spans plains, and literally burns down barns. While the film teeters on satire at times, it is simply too bleak to be a comedy, although it’s too darn funny to be an outright drama. Sure, it takes a bit of getting used to at the start, but this gorgeous, strange ride is filled with gifted actors in curious combinations: Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly are a great match as brothers, with a rhythm that speaks to decades of mutual irritation, while Nightcrawler co-stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Riz Ahmed get to explore an entirely different sort of dynamic.
It also features a scene where Reilly barfs up hundreds of baby spiders, and if that’s not a wholehearted recommendation, I don’t know what is.
Set in 1851 in the lawless hills of Oregon, during the Gold Rush boom period, the story follows the sisters brothers, Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix) and Eli (John C. Reilly), squabbling guns for hire who frighten or kill anyone in the path of their wealthy employer, an Oregon City baron called simply The Commodore (Rutger Hauer). The work suits Charlie, a drunk and maybe a sociopath, who enjoys trouble. But Eli has grown weary of the outlaw life, of killing to make ends meet.
Hoping this would be their last job, Eli agrees to join Charlie to hunt down Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed), a prospector who has discovered a chemical formula that makes finding gold easier in the river, which he is a little too loose-lipped about and thus has found himself the target of some dangerous men who would like to steal his idea. The Commodore has also sent ahead a scout, John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), a dandy detective to keep an eye on Hermann before his killers arrive. But unknown to them, Warm’s relentless optimism has swayed the weary Morris to find himself enamored of the scientist’s view of the world.
But the story doesn’t quite go as expected, and tenuous friendships and bonds are formed between the men. It makes for some interesting conversations, moments and a truly horrifying climax. And that’s more than enough plot for a film that isn’t primarily about plot. It’s about stylish, evocative cinematography, and it’s very much an acting showcase. While looks like a lot of Westerns you’ve seen before, all wide-angle panoramas of the untamed wilderness and furtive conversations around campfires, it sure doesn’t feel like one, as this is kind of a road trip film, only it’s on a horse trail from Oregon to San Francisco, and it’s kind of a buddy comedy.
Along the way, bonds are forged and broken, and paths are crossed with a kind-hearted saloon gal (Allison Tolman), a greedy town lord (Rebecca Root), and the brothers’ mother (Carol Kane). We meet the brothers, and become familiar with their contentious rapport, in the opening minutes, when they get the drop on some marks at a farmhouse, their gunfire cutting through the total black of night with brilliant flashes of illumination. There’s more violence to come, but it’s not really the focus of the film, which is more interested in shooting the breeze than shooting rifles.
The episodic structure, an incident involving a poisonous spider; a pit stop in a town named after its wealthiest resident, is straight from DeWitt’s bestseller, which let the sibling rivalry move things along, from one misadventure to the next. Here, director Audiard requests some patience from viewers in the early scenes: It’s not until halfway through the film that the primary characters’ motivations become clear. The second hour, though, strides toward its impressively unstinting resolution with magisterial confidence. With the characters finally stripped of the hardness they’d been forced to wear, their raw self until we finally are shown are how and why they are this way.
The revisionist Western is, of course, hardly a new concept—filmmakers have been taking one of Hollywood’s earliest genres and warping it in unusual ways for decades. Still, the film feels special. It has the painterly visuals of a classic film, but its lead characters are black-hatted villains whose road to redemption is mostly motivated by exhaustion rather than guilt. The story is grim and violent, but the brothers’ relationship is shot through with ramshackle humor, and the men they’re ultimately tasked with pursuing are portrayed as loving and idealistic—an utter rarity for this kind of story.
The most surprising thing about the film is the humor. There is a running joke where Charlie comes to hate Morris because of the pretentious words he uses in his letters, and a visual gag with Eli and a toothbrush, which he’s just discovered. In this almost dumb and dumber pairing, Eli is the slightly smarter one, the one who wishes for stability, a wife and peace. His prized possession is a red scarf that was given to him by a woman he loves. Charlie teases him mercilessly about this. Charlie is the drunk, the violent one and the one that Eli has resigned himself to protecting because of an incident in their childhood.
Unlike many of his European compatriots, director Audiard, a filmmaker long attuned to racial and economic issues, is more than convincing in his depiction of the American West in his English-language debut, its perceptive and compassionate details finding harmony with the script’s genre elements. But it’s the central fraternal relationship that makes this adaptation of Patrick deWitt’s novel a near-masterpiece, a simmering chase film that gradually heats up to a searing family drama that wonders how to care for a loved one that’s impossible to live with. You might be surprised by how much you end up caring about Eli and Charlie over the course of this journey, and, again, it’s all because of Phoenix and Reilly who excellently manage all the various tones in the film.
But that rapid change, so often greeted with ambivalence if not outright distrust by the genre—could also bring emotional enlightenment, embodied by Ahmed’s good-hearted dreamer Warm, whose idealism proves catching. This is a film built from contradictions, and to a point, it’s worth considering the ways in which director Audiard intends for them to be read. There’s a sharp (if obvious) contrast drawn between Charlie and Eli, and even if the film takes pains to shade the humanity into both, there’s a clear hero and antihero present in the story. The film may take a while to unite all four actors, but some of its best stuff emerges in those early scenes, when director Audiard tries to complicate his familiar characters by lending them an appealingly human eccentricity.
There’s a strangeness to certain passages of brothers that bolsters it through its seedy saloons and cacophonous firefights, and it constitutes the best the film has to offer. And of course, as expected in any Western, the landscapes and set design are all beautiful to witness.
However, somewhere along the way the film loses its footing in trying to juxtapose the bloody realities of the Old West with the modern tendencies of a particularly chatty indie. It’s an interesting exercise, but also not one that entirely works, particularly in the way that it’s ultimately yet another story about violent men finding their way to salvation through yet more violence. For a film that sees director Audiard playing so much with genre and form, the film is just a hair underwhelming for how eminently familiar it winds up being.
However like I mentioned, the performances are worth the look. Joaquin Phoenix plays Charlie with a verve and spirit that have mostly been lacking from his more serious performances of late. And it his tormented character that drives the action. But the emotional weight is carried by John C. Reilly in one of his signature low-gear, but somehow still high-octane, performances as a gentle-hearted killer. In a rare starring role, Reilly, who emerged as a dramatic actor in mid-’90s Paul Thomas Anderson projects and then transitioned to broader comedy, leans on his cross-genre strengths to help Eli feel sweet without being cloying.
Riz Ahmed, who earned his slow-burn cred in the HBO miniseries ‘The Night Of’ and has rapidly become one of Hollywood’s most versatile rising stars, brings a studied charm to his ambitious prospector, and there’s a gentility to his scenes with Gyllenhaal that sees both men do some of their best work in the film. Surprisingly, it’s Gyllenhaal who has the interesting distinction of being the only one in the cast attempting to affect a period appropriate accent.
Allison Tolman and Carol Kane stand out in tiny roles, though British Trans comedian Rebecca Root probably deserves better than an assertive madam whom the brothers seem to hate for doing only what men have been doing for millennia. On the whole, ‘The Sisters Brothers’ is a darkly funny and satisfying violent western, which despite its predictability deserves a watch at least for the talent on board.
Directed – Jacques Audiard
Rated – R
Run Time – 121 minutes