French director Jacques Audiard brings a Euro sensibility to his western, The Sisters Brothers, exploiting then subverting and ultimately dissembling the macho gunslinger stereotype. The character treatment and some excellent acting performances save the narratively thin film from tedium.
The Sisters Brothers, a rough and tough western featuring a classy cast of notable American actors, is at first glance a curious inclusion in the 2019 Alliance Française French Film Festival program. Its only claim to Frenchness appears to be its writer/director Jacques Audiard (A Prophet, Rust and Bone).
As you’d expect, he’s done things a little differently. For starters, although set mostly in 1850s Oregon and featuring very American-looking landscapes, the film was actually shot in Spain and Romania.
Then there’s the dramatic opening – a prairie shootout in the dark, which is unlike any I’ve seen in a western (and as a big fan of the genre, I’ve seen a lot). Much of it is filmed in a single long-shot take. All you can make out is a shack under siege. Guns flash and roar from left (the shack) and right. Eventually the flashes on the left stop. We know, of course, what that means.
Unfortunately, the rest of the film does not deliver on the promise of this extraordinary opening scene.
The shack siege victors are ruthless guns-for-hire Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix) and Eli (John C. Reilly) Sisters. They’re in the employ of a shadowy figure they refer to as The Commodore (Rutger Hauer) to track down chemist Hermann Warm (Riz Ahmed), who has developed a liquid formula that makes gold nuggets in riverbeds glow.
Not content to rely solely on the Sisters brothers, and unbeknown to them, The Commodore also sends out a detective, John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), to find Warm. The four eventually coincide, and teaming up in an unlikely alliance born of gold fever put Warm’s formula to the test. It’s spectacularly successful, but there are catastrophic side-effects.
A strange story, no? And intriguing to a point – but there’s not much to it, and it takes too long to play out.
The film is rescued from outright tedium by the four main characters and the excellent performances of the actors who play them. None of these guys is terribly likeable, so the viewer’s emotional engagement is low. However, something interesting is going on here, something to do with contrasting character qualities and the evolution of the Wild West towards a state of civilisation.
Charlie’s a crude specimen at the bottom of the evolutionary scale. He’s a creature of unrefined appetites, a drunk, fond of whoring, ready to explode into violence at the slightest provocation. Older bro Eli shows signs of tiring of life as a hired gun. He is quite taken by a new-fangled instrument of hygiene he discovers in a small frontier town they happen by – a toothbrush (Charlie doesn’t share his enthusiasm). It seems that Eli is yearning for something more than he has, but doesn’t know what it is or where to begin looking.
Warm and Morris, however, are educated men. Set at loggerheads by circumstance, they might otherwise be buddies. Warm observes at one point that Morris’s polite smile on meeting him lingered longer than is usual, and wonders what this might mean. Expressions like these are quite alien to the male of the Wild West. And yet, Morris does not react with suspicion, as might be expected, but engages in conversation. It’s as if these two guys are displaced to the past from more modern times. Jarring, curious and thought-provoking.
The Sisters brothers, though, are the primary focus. As cold-blooded killers-for-hire, they are classic western character stereotypes. As such, Audiard exploits them dramatically, milking them for their violence, yet in his hands they are strawmen. Bit by bit he subverts the stereotype, ultimately dissembling it. What is left once he is done with them is a couple of inadequate human beings whose journey travels full circle, ending – pathetically – where it began. I can’t elaborate without spoiling, so if you’re curious to know more you’ll have to see the film.
The Sisters Brothers ain’t no classic, but it’s unusual and that makes it worth a look, especially if you’re into westerns.
Movie Website: https://www.foxmovies.com/movies/the-sisters-brothers
The Sisters Brothers (original title Les Frères Sisters) features: John C. Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix, Jake Gyllenhaal, Riz Ahmed
Director: Jacques Audiard
Writers: Jacques Audiard, Thomas Bidegain (screenplay), based on the book by Patrick DeWitt
Runtime: 122 min
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