The Sisters Brothers [2018] – A Meandering Yet a Stirring Tragicomic Western

The Sisters Brothers, based on Canadian novelist Patrick deWitt’s 2011 novel, marks the English-language debut for acclaimed French film-maker Jacques Audiard. It’s also Mr. Audiard’s first foray into Western genre, the man behind Hitchcokian thrillers Read My Lips (2001), The Beat That My Heart Skipped (2005) and exemplary, multi-layered dramas A Prophet (2009), Rust and Bone (2012). And unlike the foundational works of Western genre from the likes of John Ford or Howard Hawks, Audiard deals less with the mythical Western landscape and focuses more on the absurdities and wild ambition of the men belonging to old American frontier. This Western character piece does take its time to establish the plot as the first hour throws melange of mythic archetypes and (repeatedly) emphasizes on the characters’ eccentricities. Nevertheless, the earlier, plot-less exercises in genre tropes don’t get too tedious, simply because of the talented quartet of performers and John C.Reilly’s soul-searching bounty-hunter is easily the most impressionable character among the central four. 

The oddly named titular brothers are Eli (John C.Reilly) and Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix), a mid 19th century hired guns plying their trade of killing during the early days of Californian Gold Rush. The uncertainty and messiness of their job is established in the opening shot, which unfurls over a sprawling prairie at nighttime, the gunfire traded from an isolated cabin and grassland sporadically illumines the landscape. Eli, the older brother, is a considerably warm-hearted man who has grown weary of making ends meet through murders. Charlie is a trigger-happy, drunken lout, who enjoys the disquieting atmosphere of the Old West. Employed by the powerful and wealthy Commodore (Rutger Hauer in a blink-and-miss cameo), the two brothers are on the trail of Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed), a young idealist and prospector, whose chemical formula might be the easiest way possible for locating gold in riverbeds. Eli and Charles’ job is to extract the formula (by any means) and kill Warm. Commodore has already sent a scout named John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal) to keep an eye on Warm. Of course, nothing goes according to plan and the narrative tone often veers between comedic and gruesome.

Despite the presence of bigger stars like Phoenix and Gyllenhaal, John Reilly easily owns the movie, and it’s through his weary yet humanist perspective much of the narrative unfolds. Reilly’s Eli is a bumbling giant who displays depths of sensitivity and tenderness that wildly contrasts with his distrustful surroundings. There’s one amazing bittersweet scene where Eli hires a prostitute (Allison Tolman) and coaches her to engage in a kind dialogue (whereas she is bedazed by his pleasant nature). Eli in spite of his skill set and symbiotic relationship with Charlie yearns for benignity and warmth of a home. And the transformation that sprouts within Eli is often related with the promises of modernity. In one of the visits to a frontier town, Eli buys a newly designed product called ‘toothbrush’ (it comes with a little ‘user guide’). This preoccupation for hygiene in a way changes Eli so that he digs deeper into his dreams, humanity, and conscience. Ahmed’s Warm who dreams of forming a utopian, democratic commune also hints at a form of emotional enlightenment born out of modernity and idealism. At the same time, Audiard and his co-writer Thomas Bidegain doesn’t decidedly portray the encroaching modernity as the unfailing antidote to the violent Wild West. The rapid change to modernity not only provides the idea of civilized restaurant dinner but also scorches humanity, sometimes literally as we witness the devastating effects of Warm’s chemical formula.

Although The Sisters Brothers is an adaptation of a novel and set in the Old West, the archetypal Audiard characters and themes could very well be found in the narrative. Similar to the protagonists in A Prophet, Rust and Bone, and Dheepan, Eli might be a fighter with a hulking figure, but these slow character studies is adeptly designed to bring out the men’s tenderness and vulnerabilities (things they didn’t know they possess), before setting them off on a path towards redemption and hope. Director Audiard do struggle a bit in juggling between different tones and ideas,  particularly the way he takes pains to diffuse shades of humanity into Charlie and Eli before delving into yet another violent episode. Even though the film was not shot in US (but in Spain, France, and Romania), Audiard’s gaze rarely falls upon the sprawling landscape (cinematographer Benoit Debie however makes good use of the expansive setting whenever the situation demands). His formal language as usual pays more attention to the characters’ interior lives and their conversations. Even in distinct Western settings like saloons and gun-fights, the priority lies on how the characters are framed (including the nod to John Ford’s The Searchers in the final ‘home-coming’ scene). Eventually, the performances play a vital role in delivering the due emotional impact. Much of the interest in the narrative lies in figuring out how the four main characters come together and how their fates are written.

The Sisters Brothers (121 minutes) smartly discards the superfluous layers of the legendary Western genre though its surprising and sometimes morbid tonal shifts may not work for all. Anyway, John C.Reily’s endearing central performance is reason enough to watch the movie. 


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