THE SISTERS BROTHERS B+
France Spain Romania USA (121 mi) 2018 ‘Scope d: Jacques Audiard
An eclectic work that defies expectations, where the social realism of French director Jacques Audiard, maker of such searingly dramatic works as The Beat That My Heart Skipped (De battre mon coeur s'est arête) (2005), 2010 Top Ten Films of the Year: #10 A Prophet (Un Prophète), Rust and Bone (De rouille et d'os) (2011), and Dheepan (2015), is traded in for his first English-speaking movie, a somewhat eccentric yet luxuriously beautiful American western set in Oregon and California during the Gold Rush days of 1851, tempered with humor and personality, becoming more of a buddy movie with two oddball characters sharing the lead, the always cantankerous Sisters brothers, Charlie and Eli, Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly, hired assassins who have developed a reputation for professionalism, as they always get their man, yet the gist of the movie is their relentless bickering and in-fighting that takes place along the way. Perhaps unexpectedly, we see the names of uncompromising film directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne as producers, also Cristian Mungiu, while the driving force behind the film was actor/producer John C. Reilly securing the rights of the book, as the mournfully comic film is adapted from Canadian author Patrick DeWitt’s 2011 historical novel that pays homage to the unscrupulous immorality prevailing throughout the American West. In the Gold Rush era, a mad and obsessive spirit induces “thousands of previously intelligent men and women to abandon their families and homes forever,” but most ended up down on their luck, demoralized and emptyhanded, as only a few realized their dreams, and even then what wealth they obtained soon fizzled out from the inflated prices that quickly adjusted to the gold standard. In this fever dream of unlimited opportunity, we meet the Sisters brothers in action, carrying out a night assault on an unlucky group of eight stuck in a farmhouse, every one killed with ruthless precision. But it isn’t the blood or gore that stands out, instead these two brothers have an endearing way of communicating, chatting endlessly, as they’ll get caught up on a particular word and then hound the other mercilessly for using it. It’s a stand-out script co-written by Audiard with Thomas Bidegain that feels remarkably fresh in a genre film, recalling some of the magic from Taylor Sheridan’s equally imploring Hell or High Water (2016).
Receiving their orders from a notoriously secretive man known as the Commodore, Charlie tells his brother that he’s been assigned as the lead man, getting a majority percentage in their pay, and, accordingly, he’s been issued a new horse. Eli is a bit startled, as this is all news to him, wondering why he should have to ride the same beaten-down horse. But it fits their profile, as Charlie is the extroverted sociopath who gets all the attention, executing men with a sadistic relish, seemingly without a care in the world, though it’s clear he has a screw loose somewhere, getting blind drunk on too many occasions, with the more thoughtful and introspective older brother Eli inevitably forced to play second fiddle and look after him, as he’s done all their lives. Both scarred from brutally painful and traumatic childhood experiences, they had a ruthless father who was an aggressive drunkard that routinely beat their mother, where it was the boys themselves that eventually put an end to it, though Eli still regrets that it was Charlie who killed him, feeling this was the older brother’s responsibility. Nonetheless, a special bond has developed between them through the years, with Eli contemplating getting out while they’re still alive, retiring quietly, perhaps running a general store. Charlie, of course, has to laugh at that, thinking they’re on top of the world, earning top dollar, feeling invincible, so why on earth would they stop now? Killing is the only thing he’s really good at, taking great pleasure in his dominant skill, and while it’s clear they inherited bad blood from their father, they believe they’re putting it to better use. So it’s on to the next mission, with the Commodore hiring a more discerning detective tracker John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal with a weird accent) to find one of his enemies described as a thief, Hermann Warm (Riz Ahmed), a chemist with a secret formula for finding gold, with Morris expected to hold him until the Sisters brothers finish him off, but not before extracting his valuable secret. While there is plenty of ground to cover, Audiard’s leisurely pace allows time to pass, paying respect for the great distances, as these were epic and often laborious journeys filled with peril (often of their own making), where the film becomes a compelling weeks-long odyssey of new discoveries. Shot by Benoît Debie in the forests and mountains of Romania and Spain, the majestic scenery is reminiscent of Peckinpah’s early film Ride the High Country (1962), as is the back and forth banter between two highly skilled actors working at the top of their game, where perennial second banana Reilly literally steals the picture as an outlaw with a heart of gold.
Curiously, both Phoenix and Reilly have performed variations on Johnny Cash, with Phoenix nominated for an Oscar with his biographical portrayal in WALK THE LINE (2005), while Reilly did a character based on the renowned exploits of Cash in his irreverently obscure film, WALK HARD: THE DEWEY COX STORY (2007). They are terrific together, where Phoenix is more manic and terrifying, but the more laid back and accommodating Reilly is really the heart of the picture in what amounts to a role of a lifetime. Part of the beauty of the film is that nothing ever goes according to plan, instead we are treated to the bizarre twists and turns in the road. An informed character study, we only learn the brother’s backstory late in the film through belated developments, as each in their own way is challenged to rise above their past and make amends, chartering new and unfamiliar territory, where at one point when they hit the Pacific Ocean Charlie announces, “I think this is further than we’ve ever been before.” “You mean ― in conversation?” asks a clueless Eli. Foreshadowing a new playing field, all the central characters meet at some point, each in some ways changed by the others, where people actually make a difference. But it’s no easy transition, as stubborn and hard-headed frontier individualists are usually the last to recognize internal conflict and adapt to change, but here blind ambition and disturbing forces challenge each of them, albeit differently, offering at least some of them a chance at redemption. Audiard always does an excellent job probing the depths of masculinity, finding layers of humanity underneath that defy the stereotypes, where these two brothers are polar opposites, yet perhaps the two of them together form a more perfect union. Can bad people change? Usually there’s no incentive to do so, as they continually get what they want by being bad. But this film speaks to an era of lawless savagery that finally succumbs to the pressures of a more decent civilization. Audiard beautifully integrates that into the story and pieces it together, pointing to a more hopeful direction that literally springs out of nowhere, painting a darkly humorous yet insightful portrait of the American West, where the unending violence is near impossible to escape, yet salvation is rarely achieved at the barrel of a gun. The music of Alexandre Desplat is never overpowering, but offers a sense of restrained elegance, like a spiritual awakening, which may be the underlying key to the film. The pressures of their dark past clearly haunts Eli, who seeks a different outcome than his more untamed brother, where the cruel hostilities of the world eventually take their toll, as you can’t keep challenging fate forever. It’s like playing Russian roulette, where the consequences are ultimately devastating. But Audiard is up to the task, finding tenderness where you least expect it, offering a picture-perfect finale that finds a grace note, transcending all moral boundaries.