I’ve had this review sitting at the top of my ‘to do’ list
for a good two weeks now. Yet, whenever I sat down to write, it slipped my
mind. I simply forgot that it needed to be done. Which is a mighty shame as
that in itself says a lot about The
Sisters Brothers – the latest film from Jacques Audiard, working here for
the first time in English.
The titular brothers are played by John C. Reilly as Eli and
Joaquin Phoenix as Charlie, and as siblings they work together as criminals in
colonial America, dolling out punishment and reaping bounties for Rutger
Hauer’s crime boss, The Commodore. As the tale begins, they are sent off on a
journey to track down Riz Ahmed’s scientist, Hermann Kermit Warm. Meanwhile,
unaware to the Sisters Brothers, Jake Gyllenhaal’s opportunistic crim, John
Morris, has encountered Ahmed’s genius and works his way into being a part of whatever
invention Hermann has in hand. It’s clear from the cast that exceptional talent
is purely dripping from this film.
With a script by Jacques Audiard and Thomas Biedgain, based
on Patrick DeWitt’s book of the same title, The
Sisters Brothers certainly exudes attention to detail and care to depict
the era as faithfully as possible. There has always been something of a skewed
perspective when foreigners craft tales about a country, where they are able to
see life through different eyes than the people who live within its borders –
think of Canadian Ted Kotcheff’s view of Australia with Wake in Fright, or Brit Andrea Arnold’s look at the youth of
America with American Honey. Audiard
carries an inquisitive tone to this glimpse of America. He’s clearly curious
about the way America dealt with massive changes within society as towns and
cities were conjured out of the dirt, and in turn, how the inhabitants lived
with a wealth of inventions that worked to change their daily lives.
John C. Reilly’s Eli is easily the most engaging character,
with Reilly delivering a career best performance as a man who is continually
curious and concerned about the way the world is morphing into some kind of
abstract of the world that has existed before. When Eli purchases a toothbrush,
he finds the novelty of such an item entrancing, and the existence of the
toothbrush in his life almost becomes a catalyst for him rediscovering the
world around him. Is there more to this life of crime? Is the prostitute that
he visits an actual person and not someone to simply sleep with? What would
happen if, as brothers, the Sisters managed to turn their nefarious gains from
crime into a life of business and servitude to society? Is the horse that he
rides capable of emotions, making him more than a simple tool?
The concept of the deconstructed Western has been worn to
death, so much so that the Western genre is nowadays almost purely filled with
deconstructed Western’s. While the notion of diving into American history at a
massively pivotal point, and looking at it from a scientific perspective, all
sounds interesting, it’s surprisingly devoid of any level of immediacy that
secures its place in your mind. The curiosity Audiard has for this era and
those who lived at that time never fully rubs off on a narrative that feels
more meandering than contemplative. Yes, Eli is open to questioning what his
role in America is, but the trigger happy Charlie wrassles the film down to the
basic roots of the Western genre – namely, shoot first, ask questions later.
Admittedly, the gunfights are inventive and exciting to
watch. The opening fight in particular is stunning to watch, as a darkness
drenched world erupts into chaos as gun powder lights up the night and bodies
collapse on the ground with a thud. Yet, for all the excitement that the
violence creates, Audiard manages to tut-tut the actions of Charlie by making
him a reckless devil who tears through the world with almost wanton
carelessness. When the brothers encounter a town that had been crafted at the
hands of a woman, Charlie sees this as an affront to the inhabitants and sets
about tearing it down with bullets and willpower. Joaquin Phoenix is solid as
Charlie, but there is a feeling that he is sleepwalking through this
performance, as if he’s already been here before as an actor.
It’s a trope we’ve seen utilised over and over again – two
brothers who work together, with one who can’t change his ways, getting the two
into trouble –, and unfortunately The
Sisters Brothers struggles to breathe life into it. With that said, it is
by design that the blending of Eli’s progressive mindset and Charlie’s
destructive nature does not gel with ease. There needs to be friction and
discomfort for the thematic elements to work, which unfortunately doesn’t make
for particularly exciting viewing. Further to this, Riz Ahmed’s Hermann and
Jake Gyllenhaal’s John appear to exist to add to the notion that men are
naturally self-destructive and greedy. The opportunistic nature of masculinity
fosters a realm of self-service where the only person that matters is himself.
Where The Sisters
Brothers concludes is wonderful and apt for the story that Audiard has
told. It’s a gentle conclusion, rather than a very possible ominous and destructive
one, and one that suggests that while the characters of The Sisters Brothers are regularly destructive, they are still
empathetic creatures. If there’s a ‘full stop’ remark that Jacques Audiard appears
to be making about America, it’s that for all the violence that helped make the
country what it is, not much has changed in the decades that have yawned
between then and now. Except, maybe, the way that the criminal behaviour of the
Sisters brothers has been turned into regular business practice due to the
insidious nature of capitalism.
In the moment, The Sisters Brothers is entertaining, and regularly amusing with a spattering of empathetic comedy, and while the themes it explores are salient and interesting, it is simply not enough to allow the film to linger in your mind in the same way that the majority of Jacques Audiard’s work does. And, now that I’ve written my review, I will unfortunately go back to forgetting that I’ve seen this film, only to have it be the answer to the question ‘what has Jacques Audiard been up to lately?’ that I will no doubt ask myself in six months.
Director: Jacques Audiard Cast: John C. Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix, Riz Ahmed Writers: Jacques Audiard, Thomas Biedgain (based on The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt)
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