The Sisters Brothers
Based on the 2011 novel by Patrick deWitt, The Sisters Brothers grabs the eye right away with its title, but perhaps less with the premise if I may be so bold: two hard-riding bounty hunter/assassins going through the boundless wild west in search of their quarry, the sort of narrative that this genre and this medium has had more than enough of. Even in the new wave of westerns that seem to be a surprisingly popular choice for film-makers nowadays, we’ve seen the basic idea recently enough, in 2015’s Slow West and even last years disappointing The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs had certain elements. John C. Reilly had enough faith in this idea to get his production company involved as well as starring, and I can’t fault the other cast members or choice of director, but I must admit that I was wary of The Sisters Brothers as I sat into my seat, making the choice to view it sort of at the last minute when nothing else really appealed: the film thus had ample opportunity to be a wonderful surprise, or maybe to confirm my worst fears.
Famed gunfighters the Sisters Brothers, Eli (Reilly) and Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix), are hired by a wealthy businessman to track down Hermann (Riz Ahmed), a chemist who claims to have discovered a method of making gold in rivers glow. While private detective John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal) attempts to delay Hermann on the Gold Rush, Eli and Charlie deal with a number of unlucky happenstances, as well as a growing clash of personalities that may yet tear the two apart.
The Sisters Brothers certainly has its tropes. Gunfights, bounty hunters, cathouses (replete with whores with a heart of gold), shots of whiskey, Oregon trails, prospecting, more gunfights, lots of familiar looking scenery, and right in the middle of it are two common archetypes: the well-meaning, almost kindly lug who only shoots to protect family, and the alcoholic reprobate who doesn’t let the juice interfere with his trigger finger skills too much. A target to hunt down, a succession of bad guys to shoot and a shadowy figure right at the top of it. There are plenty of occasions when The Sisters Brothers looks for all the world like 120 minutes of cliche, the kind of forgettable spaghetti western that were a dime a dozen in the 60’s and 70’s.
And yet. The Sisters Brothers saves itself, and then goes on to excel, when it subverts expectations and casts the tropes off, even if it is only temporary. This is a film made by a director, Jacques Audiard, known almost exclusively for his French-language works, shot in a mixture of Spain and Romania, so I guess we shouldn’t be too surprised that it is full of such twists: the brotherly relationship based on misguided co-dependence, a comedic twang underlining the serious drama, a big third act finale deferred in surprising fashion and buckets and buckets of brutal unrelenting bloodshed, in a manner that would make John Wayne blush: The Sisters Brothers wants to set up a traditional story, and then break it apart bit by bit, like an editor ripping a western yarn to pieces with copious notes. The end result is an interesting and engaging feature, that manages to both maintain the facade of a well-worn adventure story and still have enough left over for a character study with depth.
You have Reilly’s Eli of course, a man who is in need of something more in his life than murder and mayhem, but stays tied to it, and his brother, out of a sense of warped obligation for previous events. In Reilly’s excellent performance – long due a really decent dramatic lead role – he carries himself as a gentle giant (I can’t have been the only one who saw a little bit of Steinbeck’s Lenny in him, though he also embodies George insofar as he’s attached to someone he doesn’t want to be attached to) looking for companionship and even refinement – a recurring motif involving toothbrushes springs to mind, as does a somewhat sad sequence where he attempts to eat borscht with some strangers – and who thinks back to vague events upon involving a “schoolmarm” and a shawl frequently. But there is a crumbling edifice to it all: he engages in murder and mayhem without any serious compunctions as well as his brother, and at the end of the day his apparent dream of getting out of the gunslinger life seems as distant for him as it must be for Charlie.
Phoenix’s younger sibling is the film’s destructive force, inheriting an addiction to the bottle from a deviant father and content to solve his problems with harsh words followed closely after by bullets. While his capability with a gun is unquestioned, and he also maintains a strange, albeit distant, loyalty to his brother, Charlie is undoubtedly a walking disaster area, who keeps Eli saddled to the life without ever fully realising the damage that he is doing. The inversion of the trope may be simply that Charlie’s declarations that all he wants in life are bullets and blood is not entirely true, that there may be simple greed in there too, that comes out disastrously for all concerned late-on. Phoenix’s performance is a fine one, but that should come as no surprise really.
Reilly and Phoenix play off each other so well. The feeling of a proper sibling bond comes across in their dialogue, delivery and expression, something based in a deep-rooted affection, that manages to overcome the fact that they spar in so many ways, verbally, morally and even physically on occasion. A film like this lives or dies on how believable that brotherly affection seems, how possible it is that Eli and Charlie could stand each other and both Reilly and Phoenix really nail it here, bringing to life the blackly comic and moody script in a way that makes it seem human, even when it’s pushing the boundary of how you would expect such people to act.
On the other side of the narrative is the story of Gyllenhall’s John Morris and Riz Ahmen’s Hermann, a very unlikely pair who get thrust together in unlikely circumstances. Both give good performances that mirror those of the two leads, and manage to further subvert the tropes, with Gyllenhaal’s Morris a somewhat worldly, educated diary-writing detective, and Ahmed as an idealistic chemist out to eliminate greed from the world. At times their growing relationship borders on the sycophantic, maybe even romantic (get your Brokeback Mountain jokes in early folks) in a way, but this is both a decent contrast with the Eli/Charlie pair, and not all that unusual when one acknowledges the social mores of the time period (that is to say, we shouldn’t look too much into it really).
Between both plots the main thesis of the film becomes clear, being a sort of battle between idealism – summed up by Eli’s pining for a normal life he can never have, and Hermann’s idea for a greedless society he plans to set-up – and cynicism – summed up by John’s low view of human nature and Charlie’s constant recourse to whiskey, sex and robbery. One half of the equation has a positive view of what can become of humanity, while the other two, while willing to be seduced by the dream for a time, know the real truth, that this is the old west, where life is brutish and short too often. Diversions with camaraderie and friendship are feelgood moments, but only add to the tension in a certain way, as Audiard just waits for the right moment to bring the Charlie way of thinking back to the fore. If the director is asking “Can a man change?” as Eli hopes for himself and Hermann hopes for humanity, then John and Charlie are there to say “No, of course not, and get your gun out, damn you”.
This makes the films ending all the harder to get my head around. I won’t spoil, other than to say that The Sisters Brothers’ last five or so minutes is its biggest inversion of the formula it happily trots out earlier, to an extent that I can’t view positively. It was like Audiard, or maybe deWitt in his source material, completely forgot the kind of narrative they were telling, and resorted to saccharine trivialities to close off the tale in absence of anything better. It is, I deem it, a very significant weak-point, with the closing sequence making the film one that seems tone-deaf at best. There are other examples I could give, but I will focus on one episodic misadventure, where Eli is the victim of a spider laying eggs inside him, resulting in hallucinatory visions of death and decay while, offscreen, Charlie shoots dead a bear that wonders too close to the camp. It’s a strange and unappealingly disorientating sequence, that jumps between gross-out comedy and confusing avant-garde too quickly.
Audiard’s production is a visually interesting one, with the director obviously concerned with the extreme interplay between pitch blackness and bursts of light, most notably in repeating gun battles that take place at night, the booming exchanges rattling in your eardrums. The opening shots, whereby a distant battle is illuminated solely by such flashes, and punctuated by such booms, make the point, and Audiard has an eye for the dynamic night time shots elsewhere in the film, that largely sticks to modern western style cinematography elsewhere. You know the type: expansive exterior views (one of the Pacific Ocean sticks in the mind), movement-heavy interiors (the crammed saloon makes an appearance) and a pervading sense of rough-and-tumble in every production aspect, from grimy clothes to mangy horses. It’s all competently done, but aside from those few individual moments, it doesn’t stand out.
Notwithstanding the ending and how it calls attention to flaws in the films presentation of its key themes and ideas, I did enjoy The Sisters Brothers. It does a few interesting things with the western idea, and presents a quartet of interesting characters that are easy to watch and follow along with. All four of the leads, most notably Reilly, do a really stand-up job bringing what could have been a mishmash of a script to life, and while there are some pacing issues and a sense that the film never really fully grasps what it wants to be, it’s still a very entertaining, engaging experience, so much that I certainly do not deem my time or money wasted, as I feared. The genre of the modern western still has interesting places to go, or so it would seem. Recommended.
(All images are copyright of Annapurna Pictures).