Director: Jacques Audiard
Stars: John C Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix, Jake Gyllenhaal
Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix) and Eli (John C Reilly) are hired hands. The year is 1851. These brothers – the Sisters brothers – are in the employ of The Commodore (Rutger Hauer), and do his bidding for tidy reward. At the beginning of the picture they are all but obscured in darkness, bringing a ramshackle conclusion to an assignment that ends with a burning horse. Their next job entails pursuing and capturing a gold prospector. On the same path – and ahead of them – is the gentile John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal). Morris befriends his mark (Riz Ahmed’s Hermann Kermit Warm), and does his best to maintain a distance between them and the Sisters brothers.
So lurches the latest film from Jacques Audiard, whose decade has been marked by hype that didn’t quite come true in the work, from the miserablist Rust & Bone through unlikely Palme d’Or winner Dheepan. The Sisters Brothers finds Audiard plying his trade in the English language and taking on that most American of genres; the western, and yet again the results come showered in praise. Again, my experience is a mixed report.
Having been shot on digital hurts the film considerably. The darkness that the narrative begins in foretells an unwelcome murk that invades the picture. The light (or lack thereof) would almost certainly have been cast more handsomely on celluloid. That this is a western makes the use of digital feel all the more at odds with tradition. True enough, the Coen Brothers’ The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs was shot on digital (and looked magnificent), but it is the exception, rather than the rule. Of course, breaking with tradition isn’t necessarily a bad thing; but Audiard’s film covets a warm darkness that it can’t seem to achieve.
Then there’s the pacing. Though I’ve done my best to complicate it, the plot boils down to a simple chase. Charlie and Eli in pursuit of John and Hermann. Yet, The Sisters Brothers never punches its throughline with a sense of momentum. This pursuit is at a canter, not a gallop. Again, this needn’t have been to the film’s detriment per se (I do enjoy a good slow-moving story). Still, the episodic amble – present from the very beginning – does little to engender our interest or excitement. Simply, there’s little to latch onto.
The movie comes with one hell of a cast, as already itemised. The prospect of two of America’s most quizzical leads playing brothers is almost too tantalising. But in reality its an odd pairing. Phoenix’s Charlie is an opportunist and a son-of-a-bitch. Eli follows him with brotherly blindness. Reilly is already well proven in such gentle bear roles. The coupling of these two ‘types’ produces a queasy tone to their scenes that never fully relaxes, leaving the viewer feeling off-balance.
More engaging are Ahmed and Gyllenhaal, reunited from their Nightcrawler days. Gyllenhaal’s pleasantly affected English accent is well-toned. Indeed, between this and Wildlife he’s having a great year for supporting parts. Ahmed, as ever, is eminently watchable. Yet, this isn’t their movies. As the title informs us, it is the tale of the Sisters siblings. One quickly comes to wish that the focus were switched.
Curiosities keep things ticking by. The story has an unusual, quirky preoccupation with Eli’s mouth. His prideful fascination with toothpaste is cute (as is his delight at a flush toilet). Another incident involving a spider precipitates a recurrent theme of infection and disease. The Sisters Brothers contends that violence and murder are a kind of infection. Combustive acts that only beget more of the same. By the end, greed is folded in, too. Hardly revelatory, but truths all the same. The age-old frailties of man.
This past year I’ve been investigating the western; a vast outback of cinema filled with dust and blood. So vast I’ve barely charted any ground at all. But there have been wonders. I’ve discovered a preference for the works of Anthony Mann, Budd Boetticher and Andre de Toth; 50’s westerns that broil with the melodrama that was percolating in other genres at the time. The western tends to absorb certain trends in this way. The 60’s spaghetti westerns leaned into the new cinema exploding throughout Europe, coveting style. The New American cinema of the 70’s begat revisionist titles like The Hired Hand and Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid. And, as recently as last decade, films like The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford reflected a concerted effort to make cinema more elegant, more controlled.
I’m not all that sure what, if anything, is reflected in the waters of The Sisters Brothers, aside from my continuing inability to really connect with Jacques Audiard.