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Sisters Brothers, The
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by Jay Seaver

"Sounds silly, but unfortunately isn't."
3 stars

"The Sisters Brothers" is not even a quarter as playful as you might expect it to be from its title, but at times it seems like it's trying to be, a set of eccentric characters guided by a script whose every attempt to be darkly comic only winds up making everything more sad. But even taking that as the filmmakers' true intent or a beneficial side-effect, perhaps the most unfortunate thing to happen is that it's not even a powerful, affecting sadness very often.

The Brothers (or Sisterses, if you prefer) are Eli (John C. Reilly) and Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix), both talented with their guns, which they put to service for The Commodore (Rutger Hauer), a businessman in Oregon with far-flung interests, his latest a formula developed by chemist Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed) that will allow prospectors to find gold in much simpler fashion. Warm is already being tracked by the Commodore's man John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), but Morris is squeamish, so Eli and Charlie are being sent to finish the job. Truth be told, older brother Eli is also starting to sour on this line of work, which is why the far more enthusiastically violent Charlie has been made the head man.

There's something wonderfully misshapen about the four main performances in this movie, starting with John C. Reilly as Eli. There are scenes where one is reminded of his more comic performances, whether he's wide-eyed in awe at whatever new creation 1851 has to offer, from the toothbrush to the flush toilet, or displaying some perfectly-executed irritation at what his reckless brother has gotten them into. He'd be like both halves of a vaudeville comedy team, except that he's consumed by guilt and melancholy. It's kind of amazing to watch Reilly make all of that into facets of a single character - the hopeful fascination he has for the new and his self-loathing combine in the almost guileless way he begs a saloon girl to recreate the last time he felt loved and worthy, and there's an edge to Eli's sometimes-fussy arguments with Charlie because he's too human to treat that bickering lightly and make a joke about how they're just like us except their petty arguments are about murder. It doesn't always come together perfectly, but it's sort of a miracle that it comes together at all.

None of the rest of the cast have quite so complex a character, but they're all at least doing something interesting. Riz Ahmed captures Warm's almost impossible decency without making him a fool, managing to make the man who believes that the world can be a better, less cruel place impressively persuasive considering the violence and double-crosses around him, his seeming innocence tempered by the humility shows when he must acknowledge that, no, they're not there yet. One can see how Jake Gyllenhaal's Morris would be seduced by that; writer/director Jacques Audiard has him talk in florid dime-novel prose like a man desperately trying to make the world beautiful while his face is having none of it; there's a wincing, resigned sort of pain and disappointment to him well before the reasons why come out. Joaquin Phoenix's Charlie winds up the least interesting of the group for a while; his side of conversations with Eli feels like conventional wisecracking banter between cool-killer bits. He doesn't really get to work until he has to show Charlie feeling sidelined and helpless.

That they're mostly sad and disappointed is understandable; Audiard has built the sort of Western that's about the end of its era, even at this early date; there are a lot of early scenes with houses going up in the background, and even one being brought into town pre-fabricated. The frontier is being tamed, but in the worst possible way, with petty bosses running things through force of intimidation. There's no romance to the gunfights, just destructive ambushes. Warm is all too well aware that the alchemy he created to reduce backbreaking labor will probably make things worse when the likes of the Commodore get hold of it, his utopian ideals likely just fantasies.

It's a grim reckoning, but one that doesn't always seem to have a movie in it. Audiard and co-writer Thomas Bidegain, working from Patrick DeWitt's novel, spend a large chunk of the movie on the chase, but it's a slow chase that doesn't mark time and progress very well, with the various diversions along the way not the sort of diversions that really make for exciting misadventures. One can sort of respect the decisions that lead to Rutger Hauer not having any actual lines as the Commodore - better, perhaps, to have the powerful mostly offstage and unknowable from these characters' perspectives - but there's a randomness to long stretches of the movie, including the last act, that's frustrating. It neither satisfies nor shocks, and doesn't even lean into the oddness of what happens enough to be funny. What happens may follow from what came before, but doesn't leave the audience in an interesting place.

It does the more conventional parts of the Western story well, the lush Spanish countryside an adequate substitute for the American West and a great eye for how the Brothers' world looks, everything the exact right blend of new, ornate, worn-down, and functional. There's magic in chemistry and horror in fire, and the shootouts may not always be suspenseful, but they're often gripping and well-conceived in how they're shot, all muzzle-flashes in the dark, relentlessly finding targets until one side isn't shooting back.

I suspect that "The Sisters Brothers" is done no favors by its name or marketing that emphasizes its comedic moments; that's not what it is and anyone expecting laughs will likely be disappointed. Even by the standards of recent art-house westerns, though, it's no "Slow West" or "Damsel", despite the great John C. Reilly performance.

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originally posted: 11/01/18 05:00:11
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2018 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

10/10/18 Bob Dog A Western in 2018 - - and a thoughtful one at that! 4 stars
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  21-Sep-2018 (R)
  DVD: 05-Feb-2019


  DVD: 05-Feb-2019

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