The Sisters Brothers, 2018.
Directed by Jacques Audiard.
Starring John C. Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix, Riz Ahmed, Jake Gyllenhaal, Rutger Hauer, Rebecca Root and Carol Kane.
A pair of sibling hitmen embark on a lengthy journey across the American West on the tale of a gold prospector who stole from their boss.
The year is 1851 and the setting is a morally murky Oregon, USA. Two blokes in cowboy hats ruthlessly execute probably a dozen people, before one of them states rather matter of factly: “well, we fucked that up real good.” This is the opening of French director Jacques Audiard’s western The Sisters Brothers, and it’s certainly a statement.
Once the smoke has cleared, the two men are introduced as the titular team of sibling hitmen. Eli (John C. Reilly) is the older and more restrained of the two, carrying an item of clothing as a reminder of a previous paramour, while the younger Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix) is a hard-drinking loose cannon, who almost seems to relish the splashy violence inherent within their line of work. They are employed by Rutger Hauer’s shady Commodore and despatched to track down gold prospector Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed), who has stolen from the boss. Detective John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal) has been sent ahead and is already writing flowery letters – Charlie calls him a “pretentious asshole” – to update on his progress.
This seems like a pretty standard setup for thrills, but Audiard’s take on the western is slower and more elegiac, allowing the audience to feel the contrast between cinematographer Benoît Debie’s beautifully sun-baked landscapes and the stark brutality of their lives. It’s a constant push and pull between humanity and nature, from the corrosive chemicals that Ahmed’s character adds to rivers in search of gold to the spider that lays a tonne of eggs in Eli’s mouth, leading to a grotesque upchuck full of blood and baby arachnids.
This is a movie in which violence is sudden, sharp and has palpable consequences. It’s not an ‘aw shucks’ ode to America’s past, but something that exists post-Unforgiven in every conceivable way. Even Alexandre Desplat’s engagingly weird score – tinkling pianos, clanging bells and propulsive drumbeats – radiates a clear awareness that this is not your grandpa’s western. It’s one of the best musical backdrops of the year so far.
The performances are simply terrific, with Reilly in particular serving as the emotional heart of the story. He’s a man who doesn’t enjoy the dark, violent world in which he exists and is more interested in getting hold of his first toothbrush – leading to an excellent comic beat with Gyllenhaal – than he is by any of the chaos of his work. Phoenix, meanwhile, is a damaged firecracker, chucking sparks off in every direction as his childhood trauma explodes in every unguarded moment. The actor’s portrayal of a man who has long ago resigned himself against being a part of ordinary, polite society is deliciously unpredictable.
The duality of the brothers is made particularly clear when they arrive San Francisco. Eli is fascinated by a flushing toilet, while Phoenix excitedly declares that “we can kill anyone we want here”.
Audiard gives the whole movie a very bizarre feel, crafting a western that feels at once a part of the genre and something entirely different. This is certainly a movie that thinks about its stark, amoral violence but also makes it clear that the most powerful force in this take on the West is nature, rather than humanity. When the aforementioned spider crawls into Eli’s mouth, it feels like an isolated gag, but actually has a long-running impact on him. The duo are hamstrung for a large part of the narrative by the fact Reilly has a face full of spiders and one of the horses has been badly wounded in a bear attack. In this world, nature is fighting back against the greed of human expansion – a rising tide that might then have been reversible, but is now a battle Mother Earth has sadly lost.
It’s this theme of human greed that drives the unusual third act, in which characters intermingle in ways that are at odds with any recognised genre structure. The characters discuss the possibility of escaping to a quieter and more natural world, while the irresistible lure of greed keeps dragging them back into the maelstrom of violence many of them seem desperate to leave. Audiard’s point is clear – mankind must drag itself away from the pulling power of insatiable greed and avoid doing further damage to the natural world, because the world might just battle back.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.