Director: Jacques Audiard
Writers: Jacques Audiard (screenplay by), Thomas Bidegain (screenplay by)
Stars: John C. Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix, Jake Gyllenhaal
The western genre is largely a relic of a bygone era, but when we do see a new incarnation on our cinema screens there is much to admire. Recent films such as The Assassination of Jesse James…, 3:10 To Yuma, Bone Tomahawk, and Hell or High Water have shown how the dusty landscapes and fatalist attitudes of the Wild West are still ingredients for exceptional films.
The new film by Jacques Audiard (A Prophet, Rust and Bone) stars Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly as Charlie and Eli Sisters, a ragtag gun-toting duo in 1850s Oregon. The pair, who are as much chalk and cheese as drunk and sober, are recruited by The Commodore, (Rutger Hauer) a brutish, wealthy landowner, to pursue and kill a gentle prospector named Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed). Warm has allegedly stolen a special formula for uncovering gold and is set on keeping the riches for himself. Although Eli is unmoved by The Commodore’s sorry tale, Charlie is willing to take on the job, and the two bickering brothers set out on the trail.
Also on the trail of Hermann is a measured and erudite assassin called John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal). Morris gets a head start over the Sisters Brothers, and keeps a diary along the way, leaving letters at each stop-off point to inform Charlie and Eli of his progress.
French director Audiard, has shown again how sometimes it is with a foreign eye that old American mores are best dissected. From Douglas Sirk with All That Heaven Allows in the 50s and Wim Wenders with his film Paris, Texas in the 80s, European directors have used their outsider prospective to parse out the diverse ways of living in America.
In The Sisters Brothers, four disparate people in conflicting pursuits – the hunter and the hunted, the gold seeker and the taskmaster – are thrown together in a tornado of incompatible desires. Despite the obvious route he takes, Charlie is emotionally adrift. He drinks to get drunk where he then empties bars and picks fights. He sleeps with as many women as he can pay for, and abuses his brother at every turn. Eli, on the other hand, knows exactly what he wants but the ties that bind him to his errant brother grow tighter around him. Charlie relishes the danger in the job, but Eli has had enough and wants to put away his gun and return home to their estranged mother.
John Morris, the dogged assassin, is locked down by his obligations. Despite all his thoughtfulness for the surroundings, he has never asked himself what he is really doing. The working life seems to be the only one he thinks exists. When he finally catches up with Hermann – who basically presents himself to Morris – he finds a young man who is thoughtful, idealistic, and bright. Hermann wants to set up a community in Texas, free from the toxicity of the broader American society. When Morris realises that Hermann is not the craven individual he was told about, he decides to accompany Hermann to San Francisco in search of gold.
Within the unfolding story are many well-crafted, cinematic elements. The cinematography by Benoit Debie captures the celestial skylines and mountainous peaks of the West Coast. Some of the scenes following Eli and Charlie on horseback as they ride through fields of hay and tall grass are exceptionally eye-catching. Audiard directs with a special confidence a foreign director in an alien genre has no right to have, but his command over the material is obvious in the multitoned moods of the film. Also, John C. Reilly stands out as a gifted and thoughtful character actor who can perform through many layers of complexity. Look at the scene where he solicits with a prostitute, although not for sex, but just to play out a harmless but heartfelt fantasy; a husband saying goodbye to a grief-stricken wife. Joaquin Phoenix proves yet again that he is perhaps the best American actor of his generation, or at least the bravest and most unpredictable. He has the great ability of the famous method actors; you never know what he will do next, but it promises to be emotional.
Throughout, the Sisters’ Brothers journey to San Francisco is fraught with turmoil and the travails of the dangerous territory. Between night-scrawling spiders, duplicitous bordello owners, and dying horses, they can’t catch a good break. Charlie is just about ready to puke his guts up once and for all, while Eli seems to be on the verge of a hopelessness he may never outlast. Eventually they cross paths with Morris and Hermann Warm, and the ties of the plot come undone in scenes that are equally tense and sad.
I will not spoil the final act of the film. But I will say that the Homerian journey ends with all the appropriate beats that the film has been orchestrating throughout its running time. In the end we have a Western as charming as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, as melancholy as Unforgiven, and as unforgettable as The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. The Sisters Brothers is the best film of its type in many years and shows much promise for the director Audiard. Let’s hope he continues to make films away from home where it’s dusty, dangerous and the gun blasts ring long into the night.