It’s been a long time coming to the UK. Director Jacques Audiard’s first film in the English language, The Sisters Brothers, was widely applauded at Venice last year, winning Best Director but, after a last minute showing at the London Film Festival, went very quiet. Its release this week is a full six months later but, then, it’s not an easy sell. For one, it’s a western – not exactly a crowd puller – and it’s not a traditional one either. The cast certainly has box office appeal – Phoenix, Reilly and Gyllenhaal – but it’s a very male-orientated movie. And who’s heard of the book? Sure, Patrick deWitt’s novel was critically acclaimed but it wasn’t a bumper best seller. And it’s dark and very violent.
That side of things has been toned down slightly for the film and the result is more of an elegy, a meditation on aging and male relationships/ friendships. The Sisters Brothers of the title, Charlie and Eli (Phoenix and Reilly), are hired guns, working for The Commodore (a silent Rutger Hauer), whose influence and power ranges far and wide. They’re sent to track down Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed), using another of The Commodore’s men, John Morris (Gyllenhaal), as their main contact. Except that Morris has become Warm’s business partner and the two pairs are pitched against each other. What seems to be the latest job for the brothers looks increasingly like their last, with both suffering physically as the trek continues and the reason for their pursuit of Warm proving to be more lethal than the combined threat of the two brothers ….
The film holds on to the book’s vein of dark humour, but makes it broader: there’s irony in the way the brothers talk to each other, almost providing a commentary on what they do. On top of that comes an on-going thread of classic John C Reilly comedy, with scenes involving a toothbrush and another set in a hotel bathroom – all character driven, it has to be said, because he’s the brother who doesn’t like what they do, who would give anything to settle down with a home and a wife and craves a little refinement, a little civilisation. Charlie, his brother, is the complete opposite and, of the four men, the only one at home in the West. Yet, compared to the other three, his angry, insensitive nature also makes him out of step.
The air of melancholy lingering over the film doesn’t make it miserable, more contemplative, a tone not usually associated with a western. Yet the two aren’t at odds: they echo the arc of the narrative, with the West still young and growing and the brothers having peaked, looking for a way out and to change their lives for the better. Eli especially. It’s ultimately a very character driven story, with three strong leading men to drive it forward: Phoenix, Reilly and Gyllenhaal are all first rate choices and, while Riz Ahmed isn’t quite in their league, he still holds his own well enough in stellar company.
An unconventional western by any means, even though it has all the necessary trappings – saloons, horses, gunfights and the like – The Sisters Brothers accepts the violent way of life of the time but is simultaneously thoughtful and observant, thinking long and hard about the nature of life and growing old. Don’t underestimate it. Rich and complex, it’s something of a small triumph.
Freda Cooper |
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Western, Drama | Cert: 15 | UK, 5 April (2019) | Universal Pictures | Dir. Jacques Audiard | Joaquin Phoenix, John C Reilly, Jake Gyllenhaal, Riz Ahmed, Rutger Hauer.