The Sisters Brothers


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The Sisters Brothers


It was only going to be a matter of time before Jacques Audiard, the veteran hipster of French cinema, got round to making his first American movie. His earlier crime films — Read My Lips (2001), The Beat that My Heart Skipped (2005), A Prophet (2009) — felt very New Hollywood in their intense commitment to telling stories cinematically rather than wallowing in the arthouse misery favoured by many of his Euro peers (unsurprising in the case of the second of those films, a stylish remake of James Toback’s grubby 1978 Harvey Keitel vehicle Fingers). At the same time, Audiard’s own obsession with emotional realism enabled the genre elements of those films to subtly exert their grip without detracting from the characters at their core. 

The same was true of Rust and Bone (2012), which slyly appropriated the naturalistic style of its producers, the Dardenne brothers, in order to make palatable the extreme melodrama of its premise (marine park worker looses legs to killer whale and heart to brooding pugilist), ensuring that Audiard delivered a memorably vivid odd-couple relationship drama that could play equally well to arthouse and non-subtitle-resistant mainstream audiences alike. Even his Palme d’Or-winning Dheepan (2015)— which was booed when it won the top prize at Cannes (standing it in good company alongside Pulp Fiction) — teases us into thinking it’s a hard-hitting exploration of the plight of Sri Lankan refugees, only for the film to transform into a banger of a vigilante movie, with people you never see on the big screen going all Clint Eastwood on the drug dealers making their lives a misery. He tends to make movies that work as art, in other words, not works of art trying to hide their status as movies. 

All of which is to say that making a western such as The Sisters Brothers as his English-language debut feels like the ultimate move for a French filmmaker whose instincts chime with so well with American cinema. After all, there’s no more iconic or mutable Hollywood genre. The western is a robust, myth-heavy form obsessed with a way of life that effectively came to an end at the very moment cinema came into existence (Historian Frederick Jackson Turner’s landmark 1893 paper The Significance of the Frontier in American History dated the close of the frontier to 1890; the Lumiere brothers screened their first films in Paris in 1895).

 Appropriately enough, The Sisters Brothers is very much a film about impending change and the chaos that can bring — though, like recent Oscar-winner The Revenant (Dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2015), it’s more unusual in that it locates its story in the pre-Civil War era. Based on Canadian author Patrick deWitt’s playfully titled, Man Booker-nominated novel, the film plants its eponymous siblings — assassins-for-hire Eli and Charlie Sisters (played by John C Riley and Joaquin Phoenix) — in the midst of the Gold Rush, when westward expansion was accelerated by every two-bit prospector making a bee-line for California. Their employer, an empire-building Oregonian tycoon known as the Commodore (a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it turn from Rutger Hauer), wants them to kill a man named Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed), a chemist who has developed a formula for maximising the gold that can be extracted from a river bed. Warm wants to use the wealth he hopes to accrue to build a utopian retreat in Dallas — an idea that wins over the gentlemanly John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), whom the Commodore has also hired to get close to Warm in order to deliver him to the Sisters brothers.

As the film follows these two sets of characters, we get mundane signifiers of the way America is changing, be it the arrival of dental hygiene and indoor plumbing, or references to towns springing up and commerce triumphing over lawlessness. The Sisters brothers way of life is coming to an end, a fact acknowledged by the older Eli, who wants to give up killing and buy a store, an idea openly mocked by the more impulsive Charlie. But the knowledge that the Civil War is less than a decade away ensures that Audiard’s film can be read as a comment on the way progress never ends violence, it just covers it up and allows it to thrive in different ways.

It’d be wrong to talk about The Sisters Brothers only in terms of Audiard, though. It’s as much John C Reilly’s film as it is his. Reilly takes top billing over his more famous co-stars and rightly so — it’s Eli whose belated coming-of-age the film follows and it was Reilly who got the ball rolling on the project, optioning the rights to deWitt’s novel, whom he’d worked with on the indie film Terri (Dir. Azazel Jacobs, 2011).[1] DeWitt wrote the screenplay for that film and Reilly’s wife, Alison Dickey, who produced both Terri and The Sisters Brothers, asked deWitt what else he was working on. She then passed her husband an unpublished copy of The Sisters Brothers, telling him the character of Eli was perfect for him.[2] It was Dickey and Reilly who sought out Audiard, the latter expressing surprise in interviews that a French filmmaker had never directed an English language western — thus revealing his own unfamiliarity with Jacques Tourneur’s 1946 classic Canyon Passage, which, like The Sisters Brothers, is set in pre-Civil War Oregon against the backdrop of the Gold Rush. That gaff aside, Reilly’s instinct was a sound one — believing that Audiard, who brought on board his regular screenwriter Thomas Bidegain (whose own 2016 directorial debut, Les Cowboys, was a French riff on John Ford’s The Searchers), would be more interested in the characters and capturing the weird cultural mix of the times than obsessing over beautiful landscapes.[4] And so it proved. Shot in Spain and Romania, the film hues to the muddy, bloody aesthetic that’s been prevalent in the genre since The Outlaw Jose Wales (Dir. Clint Eastwood, 1976) and, like HBO’s Deadwood (Creator: David Milch, 2004-2006), it revels in the profane lifestyles of those eeking out an existence in the hardscrabble world of the frontier. But it’s also not overly concerned with its own fidelity to the period. Instead it’s filled with anachronistic language, quotes from yet-to-be-published works by Henry David Thoreau and modern soundtrack motifs (Gloria Jones’s Tainted Love especially) — all of it reinforcing the confusion of the times as it builds towards an ending that, like The Searchers before it, uses scenes of domesticity to signify that any respite from the chaos is only ever temporary.

Alistair Harkness
Film Critic - The Scotsman 
April 2019




[1] Nick Allen, A Labour of Love: John C Reilly on The Sisters Brothers, RogerEbert.com https://www.rogerebert.com/interviews/a-labor-of-love-john-c-reilly-on-the-sisters-brothers

[2] ibid.

[3] Steven Prokopy, John C Reilly on Getting to Know Joaquin Phoenix, slashfilm.com https://www.slashfilm.com/john...

[4] ibid


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