The Sisters Brothers is a film set in the American Old West, based on a book by a Canadian, made by a mostly French crew, shot primarily in Spain and Romania, featuring a Brit as an American, an American as a Brit, and a British trans comedian as a ruthless American businesswoman. I don't bring this up out of mere frivolousness; rather, a certain element of schizophrenia is built into the film's very DNA. On the surface it's a Revisionist Western with a gritty Spaghetti aesthetic focusing very much on a group of anti-heroes, but it's also a story of two brothers getting on one another's nerves, a tale of avarice and the destructive potential of progressive thinking, a chase movie, a dark comedy, a tragic fable, an examination of the days when the Old West was giving way to an ever-encroaching modernity, a look at how the sins of the father are oft repeated by the children, a study of competing types of masculinity, and even a political thesis, postulating that there was a time in American history when certain people genuinely believed they could build a harmonious society based on direct democracy.
The English language debut of director Jacques Audiard, who adapted the script with his regular writing partner Thomas Bidegain from Patrick DeWitt's 2011 novel of the same name, the film is very much of a piece with his more celebrated humanist work such as De battre mon coeur s'est arrêté (2005), Un prophète (2009), and Dheepan (2015). Unfortunately, it did next-to-nothing for me. I wouldn't say it's a bad movie, as it clearly has a lot going for it; not the least of which is an unapologetic foregrounding of character over plot. However, its episodic rhythm, bifurcated narrative structure, and poorly-defined morality left me unengaged, frustrated, and rather bored.
Set in 1851 at the height of the California Gold Rush, the film tells the story of Charlie Sisters (Joaquin Phoenix) and his older brother Eli (John C. Reilly), hired guns working for "The Commodore" (a criminally underused Rutger Hauer). Far more sensitive and thoughtful than his younger brother, Eli is growing weary of the lifestyle, wanting to retire, settle down, and open a grocery store. The more unpredictable and volatile Charlie, however, wants to keep on killing indefinitely. Their next quarry is Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed), a mild-manner chemist who has created an elixir that when poured into a river, will illuminate any gold deposits on the river bed. Unsure of Warm's exact location, The Commodore has already sent highly-intelligent tracker John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), a man too gentile for killing, to pick up his trail and detain him until the brothers catch up. However, upon learning that Warm doesn't want to use the gold for himself, but to help establish "an ideal living space, ruled by the laws of true democracy and sharing", Morris begins the doubt the mission. Meanwhile, the brothers are rapidly approaching.
Very much adopting the visual style of a Spaghetti Western, everything on screen looks dirty and/or dusty, whether it's the worn and lived-in costumes, the spartan buildings, or the perpetually unshaven characters and their rotting teeth (an historically accurate detail absent in most modern westerns). Of particular note are the shootouts, of which there are three significant examples. The first takes place at night, and is shot from a distance and without much in the way of coverage; the second is shot primarily from the point of view of two characters doing their best to hide; and the third isn't seen at all - we remain inside as the shooting can be heard on the street.
This should convey just how revisionist The Sisters Brothers is; the genre's tropes are all there, but they are presented from unexpected angles; men ride horses, but when a horse is mortally wounded, the man to whom he belongs cries and apologises; whisky is drunk aplenty, but one character would rather sit alone thinking about home; the anticipated climatic shootout plays out in a manner you'll never see coming.
The film opens with an extraordinarily beautiful and striking scene. It's night on the prairie, and having vanquished their opponents, the brothers are about to leave, when they see a horse, its back covered in flames, galloping away, trying to outrun the fire from which it doesn't understand it can never escape. Realising the barn is on fire, Eli dashes in to try to save the trapped horses, whilst Charlie urges him to remain outside. Is the metaphor of the burning horse a little on the nose? Absolutely; try as they might, the brothers can never escape that which brings them pain, no matter how far or fast they run. But just because it's not exactly subtle doesn't mean it's ineffective, and as opening visual metaphors go, it's as striking an example as you're likely to find. The scene also immediately establishes the differences between Eli and Charlie.
In relation to the milieu, yes, this is the Old West of John Ford, Anthony Mann, and Sergio Leone, but Audiard defamiliarises it as much as possible. A recurring theme, for example, is that this is a world on the brink of modernity. This is depicted via a running gag about Eli's fascination with a curious modern invention (the toothbrush), and his childlike glee at staying in a hotel with indoor plumbing. Elsewhere, Morris remarks on how quickly the country is changing, writing, "I have travelled through places that didn't exist three months ago. First tents, then houses, then shops, with women fiercely discussing the price of flour." Additionally, Warm's progressive egalitarian vision for the future allows the film to examine the belief (however short-lived) that out of the lawlessness, land thievery, and Native American genocide, a certain section of the populace hoped a more mutually beneficial society might arise.
However, Audiard is not naïve enough to suggest that the Old West was especially peaceful or safe. But even here, he subverts the genre, using a recurring motif of either Charlie or Eli shooting an already downed opponent pleading for his life, which is certainly not what we've come to expect from the protagonists so familiar in Hollywood westerns.
In terms of acting, Phoenix, Gyllenhaal, and Ahmed all have moments to shine (a monologue in which Morris describes his hatred for his father is especially worth looking out for), but this is Reilly's film. His nuanced performance allows us to see just how badly Eli's conscience is affecting him, and how much he is drifting away from the increasingly amoral Charlie. His unexpected affection for his horse is especially poignant, and his tendency to sniff a shawl given to him by his girlfriend is beautifully played.
However, for all this, I really disliked the movie. For one, I found it far too episodic, lurching from one incident to next with little in the way of connective tissue between them. I also didn't particularly like the shifts in focus from the brothers on the one hand to Morris and Warm on the other, making it impossible for either to fully settle. A knock-on from this is that it's difficult to figure out where one's empathy is supposed to lie. This difficulty becomes especially problematic in relation to the morally questionable dénouement, in which there is an incident which seems designed for the audience to roundly condemn one of the main characters, only for the film to then give us a 15-minute epilogue seemingly designed to redeem him.
This throws into relief what for me was the most egregious problem - none of what we see seems to mean anything, there are virtually no consequences for anything the brothers do (although plenty of consequences for others). This left me scratching my head as to what the film is trying to say. Is it suggesting that even the most morally repugnant of men deserve a shot at redemption? If that is the case, however, its rhetorical position is not especially cogent, as the character mentioned above in no way deserves redemption, allowing his greed and stubbornness to cause untold suffering to others whilst he gets off relatively scot-free. The film is also far too long, and could easily have lost a half hour or more.
As a kind of an aside, it's also worth mentioning an aesthetic decision that has me baffled. On occasion, the film is shot within a circular frame (think of how films often simulate POV through a telescope), often combined with racked focus and unsteady photography. I'm assuming the idea is to try to replicate the style of a Kinetograph, but given that that device wouldn't be invented for another four decades, I'm not entirely sure what the point is. An especially strange example is a scene in which Charlie speaks direct-to-camera, the only example of such in the whole film. Is this a break in the fourth wall, and if so, why? If it isn't a break, from whose POV is the scene shot?
The four performances at the heart of The Sisters Brothers earn it a great deal of leeway. But even taking that into account, I just couldn't get into it. Far too plodding and thematically unfocused, it's certainly original in how it approaches generic tropes, and that's to be commended, but the imprecise and poorly constructed episodic narrative saps away the good will built up by the aesthetic design and the acting. Is it a western? A comedy? A tragedy? An esoteric political piece? A realist depiction of greed trumping idealism? In the end, it doesn't seem to know itself, trying to be many things, and ending up being none of them.
The Sisters Brothers
Adventure / Comedy / Crime / Drama / Western
The Sisters Brothers
Adventure / Comedy / Crime / Drama / Western
Based on Patrick DeWitt's novel, The Sisters Brothers revolves around the colorfully named gold prospector Hermann Kermit Warm, who's being pursued across 1000 miles of 1850s Oregon desert to San Francisco by the notorious assassins Eli and Charlie Sisters. Except Eli is having a personal crisis and beginning to doubt the longevity of his chosen career. And Hermann might have a better offer.
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January 21, 2019 at 01:53 AM