D: Jacques Audiard / 122m
Cast: John C. Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix, Jake Gyllenhaal, Riz Ahmed, Rebecca Root, Allison Tolman, Rutger Hauer, Carol Kane
Oregon, 1851. The Sisters brothers, Charlie (Phoenix) and Eli (Reilly), work as assassins for a wealthy magnate known as the Commodore (Hauer). Tasked with killing a chemist called Hermann Kermit Warm (Ahmed), the brothers are obliged to travel south to Jacksonville where they are due to rendezvous with another man in the Commodore’s employ, John Morris (Gyllenhaal), who has located Warm and befriended him. However, Warm discovers Morris’s true allegiance, and manages to persuade him into joining Warm on his journey to the California gold fields, where a formula he has created will allow them to locate gold located on any river bed. Charlie and Eli find themselves tracking two men instead of one, and follow them all the way to San Francisco. The brothers have a temporary falling out before discovering the location of Warm’s claim site. However, when they get there, Warm and Morris outwit them and the brothers are captured. Before they can decide what to do with them, though, they are attacked by mercenaries. Forced to free Charlie and Eli in order to overcome their attackers, what begins as a necessary truce later becomes something else entirely…
Westerns made by non-American directors usually have a distinct visual look to them, with the Old West looking as though it’s been filtered through an atypical perspective. Somehow the vistas look markedly different: less awe inspiring and more prosaic, and the overall mise-en-scene feels a little off, as if the locations were chosen as a last resort, the desired ones proving unavailable. Such is the case with Jacques Audiard’s first English language feature, the marvellously droll and appealing The Sisters Brothers. But while this may seem like a handicap – and elsewhere that’s entirely apt – here it suits the material, which is itself broadly interchangeable with the demands of a traditional Western and those of a Western that portrays events with a wry, modernist detachment. Though its story is slight – it’s basically that staple of the Western movie, the manhunt – it’s also a story that is allowed to go off at several tangents, and in doing so, it provides several unexpected delights, from Eli’s encounter with a prostitute (Tolman) who is unused to kindness, to Warm’s desire to create a Utopian society in (of all places) Dallas, Texas. Odd moments such as these, and more besides, add a richness to the material that makes the movie more engaging and more enjoyable in equal measure.
There’s also a melancholy undercurrent to the narrative, as evidenced by Eli’s wish to settle down and open a store and to put the brothers’ violent life and times behind them, while the progress seen in San Francisco – a hotel with indoor plumbing – acknowledges that times are changing, and progress is fast making the brothers’ role in the West obsolete (well, eventually it will). With all this going on in the background, Audiard is equally adept at littering the foreground with moments of rare inspiration and flashes of mordaunt humour. As the two brothers, often feuding but always there for each other, Reilly and Phoenix are a terrific duo, displaying a chemistry that makes you wish they could make further Sisters movies, while the same can be said for Gyllenhaal and Ahmed, another perfect pairing that improves the movie whenever they’re on screen. These are roles that include a great deal of subtlety, and Audiard never misses a trick in letting his very talented cast wring every last drop of emotion and misguided motivation out of their characters and their characters’ ambitions. The movie is ambitious as well, and succeeds more often than not in telling its story with wit and a clever use of atmosphere. And thanks to DoP Benoît Debie (who is Gaspar Noe’s cinematographer of choice), it all looks strangely beautiful and beautifully strange.
Rating: 8/10 – adapted from the novel by Patrick DeWitt, and pulling off a number of narrative tricks that enhance the material immensely, The Sisters Brothers is a refreshing take on the otherwise overworked Western, and a movie that offers genuine surprises along the way; it’s also very funny indeed, and Phoenix is the most relaxed he’s been for ages, another unexpected aspect in a movie that treats the unexpected as something of a challenge that’s been gladly accepted.