The Sisters Brothers (2018)
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The movie is a gritty and at times nihilistic western heavy on atmosphere and dialogue. The film tells two parallel stories that eventally connect as the bounty hunters the Sisters Brother chase after their prey a scientist who has discovered an efficient way to find gold. Along the way both parties encounter struggles that really emphasize the hardships of that era. This is not the kind of western with good and bad guys. Everyone is morally grey and is just trying to survive the best they can.
Anyone looking for an grand and extravagant plot should look elsewhere. The movie is far more about the journey than the destination. The initial conflict acts as a MacGuffin. The real meat of the plot is more of a character study on the brutality of the wild west and the impact it has on the individual. The film plays with traditional Hollywood tropes and the audience's own expectation to craft it's own unique voice of the era.
The brutal nature of the film was one of my favorite parts. The film really ripped away the glamour of a silver screen western and left it bleeding on a table. The movie makes it clear that life was hard, fast, and cheap. A random spider bite, visit to the doctors, or drunken hangover on a horse could easily end a person's life. There was no time for finding something to make you happy when everyday was a struggle to survive. This added realism really captured the nihilistic feel of the movie and added a bleak and somber tone to the film's progression.
The film was also very well directed and shot. The cinematography of the action scenes were fast and fluid, but never felt choppy. This by no means the kind of western with epic battles, but the action suited the overall tone of the film. The director also really did a good job with the set pieces as you really felt like you were in the wild west. The film was exceptionally well shot. The films at times was absolutely stunning to look at. The film also provides an excellent score to match the intense atmosphere the film cultivates.
Acting wise John C Reilly stole the show. It's always nice to see him in films like this to remind everyone what kind of range he has as an actor. Joaquin Phoenix also delivers as the alcoholic and and fast tempered brother. Jake Gyllenhaal was solid as expected, but didn't really stand out in any way in the film. Still I don't have a single complaint about the acting in the film. Everyone did their jobs perfectly.
The film certainly was a very slow burn. It was heavy on dense dialogue and required quite a bit of attention. These are not negatives in my book as they were intentional, but this will not make people happy who are looking for a more traditional western. I will say that the film could have been cut down twenty or so minutes to speed up the flow of the plot. This slight pacing issue did make the film drag at times. The plot structure may be a bit of a turn off for some as well. The bleak and nihilistic flow of the film that puts the initial conflict as secondary may come across as anti-climatic for some.
In a lot of ways this is one of my favorite westerns I've seen in years. I love the actors, but it's the directors masterstrokes that really makes this movie stand out. It was all around one of the best made movies I have seen all year. It certainly had its flaws and it is not going to make anyone happy if they are expecting a traditional Western, but for those who care more about the journey and atmosphere this movie is for you. Unfortunately this movie is bombing in the box office, but it certainly deserves some praise for its accomplishments. A 8.25 out of 10.
Bounty hunters Eli and Charlie are brutal, efficient and effective. Charlie, often drunk, is impulsive and cynical, while Eli is more thoughtful and emotional. During the Gold Rush of 1851 they are trailing their mark from Oregon to San Francisco. Along the way they encounter thugs, spiders, mercury and frontier medicine at its best (or worst), and grapple with their fears and fantasies. Eli has strong feelings that violence invites more violence and attempts to get his brother to quit while they are ahead. Charlie, however, prefers action and meeting fears and uncertainties head on.
There was a genuine and spontaneous expression of love for the film from the audience at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival. From the flashes of black powder in night to the music, cinematography, twists in the plot and quotes from Thoreau, there are so many aspects of the film from which to derive pleasure. The all-star cast includes Joaquin Phoenix (Charlie), John Reilly (Eli), Jake Gyllenhaal and Riz Ahmed. Reilly and Phoenix work extremely well together and the film is worth watching just to see their chemistry. The filmmakers provide realistic and refreshing portrayals of 1850s western hygiene (or lack thereof), clothing fashions, fighting, sex and roleplay, the environment and even bird songs. Modern language is employed, rather than awkward and confusing attempts to employ historical words and phrases that audiences no longer understand the meaning of.
From the director of amazing films including Dheepan, Rust and Bone and Cannes Grand Prix winner Un prophete. Audiard said he intended to show what regular life in the West was like in 1851 and he succeeded. The Sisters Brothers was shot in Spain and France, with sets in Romania, but there was no way I could tell if Audiard did not say so. Something I do not often realize, but the editing is crisp and remarkable. The scenes seem so natural in their order. The film is based on Canadian author Patrick deWitt's award winning novel.
It's fairly well shot, but it is not a beautiful film. There are exceptions to this, a gold panning scene being one of them. I would've forgiven a lot if every shot would've looked like a painting. But the pace of this film will lull you to sleep, about halfway through we get to our first interesting conflict and character development between the brothers. I don't think we would've missed Jake Gyllenhaal's character had he been entirely cut from the film.
It's a slow burn of a film, but instead of a roaring inferno, this one fizzles out. Skip this and go watch a Clint Eastwood or John Wayne film.
The English language debut of director Jacques Audiard, who adapted the script with his regular writing partner Thomas Bidegain from Patrick DeWitt's 2011 novel of the same name, the film is very much of a piece with his more celebrated humanist work such as De battre mon coeur s'est arrêté (2005), Un prophète (2009), and Dheepan (2015). Unfortunately, it did next-to-nothing for me. I wouldn't say it's a bad movie, as it clearly has a lot going for it; not the least of which is an unapologetic foregrounding of character over plot. However, its episodic rhythm, bifurcated narrative structure, and poorly-defined morality left me unengaged, frustrated, and rather bored.
Set in 1851 at the height of the California Gold Rush, the film tells the story of Charlie Sisters (Joaquin Phoenix) and his older brother Eli (John C. Reilly), hired guns working for "The Commodore" (a criminally underused Rutger Hauer). Far more sensitive and thoughtful than his younger brother, Eli is growing weary of the lifestyle, wanting to retire, settle down, and open a grocery store. The more unpredictable and volatile Charlie, however, wants to keep on killing indefinitely. Their next quarry is Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed), a mild-manner chemist who has created an elixir that when poured into a river, will illuminate any gold deposits on the river bed. Unsure of Warm's exact location, The Commodore has already sent highly-intelligent tracker John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), a man too gentile for killing, to pick up his trail and detain him until the brothers catch up. However, upon learning that Warm doesn't want to use the gold for himself, but to help establish "an ideal living space, ruled by the laws of true democracy and sharing", Morris begins the doubt the mission. Meanwhile, the brothers are rapidly approaching.
Very much adopting the visual style of a Spaghetti Western, everything on screen looks dirty and/or dusty, whether it's the worn and lived-in costumes, the spartan buildings, or the perpetually unshaven characters and their rotting teeth (an historically accurate detail absent in most modern westerns). Of particular note are the shootouts, of which there are three significant examples. The first takes place at night, and is shot from a distance and without much in the way of coverage; the second is shot primarily from the point of view of two characters doing their best to hide; and the third isn't seen at all - we remain inside as the shooting can be heard on the street.
This should convey just how revisionist The Sisters Brothers is; the genre's tropes are all there, but they are presented from unexpected angles; men ride horses, but when a horse is mortally wounded, the man to whom he belongs cries and apologises; whisky is drunk aplenty, but one character would rather sit alone thinking about home; the anticipated climatic shootout plays out in a manner you'll never see coming.
The film opens with an extraordinarily beautiful and striking scene. It's night on the prairie, and having vanquished their opponents, the brothers are about to leave, when they see a horse, its back covered in flames, galloping away, trying to outrun the fire from which it doesn't understand it can never escape. Realising the barn is on fire, Eli dashes in to try to save the trapped horses, whilst Charlie urges him to remain outside. Is the metaphor of the burning horse a little on the nose? Absolutely; try as they might, the brothers can never escape that which brings them pain, no matter how far or fast they run. But just because it's not exactly subtle doesn't mean it's ineffective, and as opening visual metaphors go, it's as striking an example as you're likely to find. The scene also immediately establishes the differences between Eli and Charlie.
In relation to the milieu, yes, this is the Old West of John Ford, Anthony Mann, and Sergio Leone, but Audiard defamiliarises it as much as possible. A recurring theme, for example, is that this is a world on the brink of modernity. This is depicted via a running gag about Eli's fascination with a curious modern invention (the toothbrush), and his childlike glee at staying in a hotel with indoor plumbing. Elsewhere, Morris remarks on how quickly the country is changing, writing, "I have travelled through places that didn't exist three months ago. First tents, then houses, then shops, with women fiercely discussing the price of flour." Additionally, Warm's progressive egalitarian vision for the future allows the film to examine the belief (however short-lived) that out of the lawlessness, land thievery, and Native American genocide, a certain section of the populace hoped a more mutually beneficial society might arise.
However, Audiard is not naïve enough to suggest that the Old West was especially peaceful or safe. But even here, he subverts the genre, using a recurring motif of either Charlie or Eli shooting an already downed opponent pleading for his life, which is certainly not what we've come to expect from the protagonists so familiar in Hollywood westerns.
In terms of acting, Phoenix, Gyllenhaal, and Ahmed all have moments to shine (a monologue in which Morris describes his hatred for his father is especially worth looking out for), but this is Reilly's film. His nuanced performance allows us to see just how badly Eli's conscience is affecting him, and how much he is drifting away from the increasingly amoral Charlie. His unexpected affection for his horse is especially poignant, and his tendency to sniff a shawl given to him by his girlfriend is beautifully played.
However, for all this, I really disliked the movie. For one, I found it far too episodic, lurching from one incident to next with little in the way of connective tissue between them. I also didn't particularly like the shifts in focus from the brothers on the one hand to Morris and Warm on the other, making it impossible for either to fully settle. A knock-on from this is that it's difficult to figure out where one's empathy is supposed to lie. This difficulty becomes especially problematic in relation to the morally questionable dénouement, in which there is an incident which seems designed for the audience to roundly condemn one of the main characters, only for the film to then give us a 15-minute epilogue seemingly designed to redeem him.
This throws into relief what for me was the most egregious problem - none of what we see seems to mean anything, there are virtually no consequences for anything the brothers do (although plenty of consequences for others). This left me scratching my head as to what the film is trying to say. Is it suggesting that even the most morally repugnant of men deserve a shot at redemption? If that is the case, however, its rhetorical position is not especially cogent, as the character mentioned above in no way deserves redemption, allowing his greed and stubbornness to cause untold suffering to others whilst he gets off relatively scot-free. The film is also far too long, and could easily have lost a half hour or more.
As a kind of an aside, it's also worth mentioning an aesthetic decision that has me baffled. On occasion, the film is shot within a circular frame (think of how films often simulate POV through a telescope), often combined with racked focus and unsteady photography. I'm assuming the idea is to try to replicate the style of a Kinetograph, but given that that device wouldn't be invented for another four decades, I'm not entirely sure what the point is. An especially strange example is a scene in which Charlie speaks direct-to-camera, the only example of such in the whole film. Is this a break in the fourth wall, and if so, why? If it isn't a break, from whose POV is the scene shot?
The four performances at the heart of The Sisters Brothers earn it a great deal of leeway. But even taking that into account, I just couldn't get into it. Far too plodding and thematically unfocused, it's certainly original in how it approaches generic tropes, and that's to be commended, but the imprecise and poorly constructed episodic narrative saps away the good will built up by the aesthetic design and the acting. Is it a western? A comedy? A tragedy? An esoteric political piece? A realist depiction of greed trumping idealism? In the end, it doesn't seem to know itself, trying to be many things, and ending up being none of them.
This is a western that has a lot of action, as do most. But it's as much character-driven as it is plot driven. I especially liked John C. Reilly as Eli, the older, and much more mature of the two Sisters brothers. The rest of the cast is outstanding...especially Joachim Phoenix as the other brother, Charlie, and Jake Gllendaal, as a frenemy.
It's also interesting to see things that were new, or new-ish inventions, that were mostly unknown to people of 1852, when the film is set. Things like toothbrushes and flush toilets.
A satisfying film, with food for thought at the end.