The Sisters Brothers

 

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A distinctive but hardly distinguished Western muddled in character.   

   Sisters Brothers

John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix

 

The Sisters brothers are Eli (John C. Reilly) and Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix) and they have a mission, one that involves them with a private detective named John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal) and with Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed) the man whom Morris has been hired to track down.  The time is 1851, the locations range from Oregon to California and this is a Western made by the much-respected French director Jacques Audiard who, together with Thomas Bidegain, wrote this adaptation of a novel by Patrick De Witt. Given the talent on hand one might expect something which, despite being offbeat (or even became of that), would work well. Indeed the film opens with a discharge of pistols in the night, a scene that is very effective both visually and orally. But, while The Sisters Brothers held my interest, it never aroused my sympathies and that is because it is so misjudged tonally.

 

Some have described this as a comic western. The odd title is certainly not misleading in its implication that the brothers are the central characters here and the film treats them as though they are akin to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid as immortalised on film. Thus, it expects us to enjoy the exchanges and the banter between these two along with scenes such as those in which Eli is enchanted to come across a new discovery, the toothbrush. However, Audiard's film fails to take account of a crucial difference: Butch and The Sundance Kid may have been outlaws, but these brothers work as hired assassins. Indeed, Charlie, a man of violence as well as an alcoholic, is aware from the outset that this time their mission is not just to kill Warm but, once found, to torture him first. This is to make him reveal the secret formula which he as a chemist has devised and which can be applied in the detection of gold rather as a divining rod pinpoints water.

 

The brothers are in touch with Morris who, hired by the same man as themselves (Rutger Hauer) to run Warm to earth, has gone on ahead. Thus it is that Morris is the first to make contact with Warm which he does without arousing his suspicions. He soon discovers that Warm despite being a prospector has altruistic aims intending to set up a democratic community in Texas once his invention has brought him wealth. Warm, particularly well-played by Ahmed, is an engaging character, but the only one of whom that can be said. In contrast, Morris remains a rather insignificant supporting figure hardly calling for an actor of Gyllenhaal's stature to play him. As for the direction, Audiard adopts a rather slow pace which reduces tension despite some tough action scenes. The relationships between the four main characters do undergo changes but are never truly compelling - and that is so even though as the climax approaches the film does seem to have left humour behind to become as grim a tale as the one told in that classic story of gold and greed, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1949). Despite that, the lighter tone returns for what looks set to become a final action highlight, but then the film ends with a homely coda. Well played though it is, the two hours or so of The Sisters Brothers never manage to suggest a work that hangs together in a truly meaningful way.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: John C. Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix, Jake Gyllenhaal, Riz Ahmed, Rebecca Root, Rutger Hauer, Carol Kane, Patrice Cossoneau, Aldo Marland, Theo Exarchopoulos, Hugo Dillon.

 

Dir Jacques Audiard, Pro Pascal Caucheteux, Michael De Luca, Alison Dickey, Michel Merkt and John C. Reilly, Screenplay Jacques Audiard and Thomas Bidegain, from the novel by Patrick DeWitt, Ph Benoît Debie, Pro Des Michel Barthélémy, Ed Juliette Welfling, Music Alexandre Desplat, Costumes Milena Canonero.

  
Why Not Productions/Page 114/Annapurna Pictures/France 2 Cinéma/France 3 Cinéma/KNM/Apache Films/Mobra Films-Universal Pictures.
122 mins. France/Spain/Romania/Belgium/USA. 2018. Rel: 5 April 2019. Cert. 15.