They don’t make Westerns like they used to but ironically enough, this is not about the mechanics of the genre where films such as Bone Tomahawk or Hostiles entertainingly prove there’s still life in those old boots. But in recent years, the cross-pollination of the genre has signalled a cinematic ‘rebirth’, mixing the traditional essence but with a contemporary twist, which is where films such as Logan, No Country for Old Men or Hell or High Water have claimed that throne. But in terms of a grandiose frequency in an era defined by John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, Westerns are far and few between in a market dominated by blockbuster franchises and comic-book superheroes.
As a late addition to the London Film Festival, The Sisters Brothers feels like a Western born out of those two worlds of tradition and modernity with the typical gruffness of a lawless, ‘kill or be killed’ authority but with a ‘buddy cop’ sense of humour. However, Jacques Audiard’s film doesn’t present the ‘old school’ conventional. It repeatedly goes off the trail into an offbeat territory, subverting the genre in a style that wouldn’t look out of a place in Coen Brothers movie. Just the opening credits alone is an accurate measure of its quirkiness, a visual, tongue-in-cheek statement which will be joked about on Honest Trailers.
Based on the book by Patrick DeWitt, The Sisters Brothers is more of a character-driven piece than a storytelling vehicle. It heavily relies on the dynamic convergence of its characters, utilising the brotherly, oddball assassins of Eli Sisters (John C. Reilly) and Charlie Sisters (Joaquin Phoenix) in tracking down a rogue chemist Hermann Warm (Riz Ahmed). Also on Warm’s trail is detective John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal with a lush taste for accents), assigned to bring Warm to the Sisters and fulfil the Commodore’s (Rutger Hauer) request. With the prospect of gold on the mind, The Sisters Brothers is a shifting landscape of idealism, opportunities and contemplative allegiances in the Wild Wild West (no relation to Mr. ‘Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It’).
There’s a suitable parallel between The Sisters Brothers and John Steinbeck’s novel Of Mice and Men. Both document the hardships in an America undergoing social change. Both share a balanced yet conflicting relationship with its central characters with Eli and Charlie navigating their way through those hardships through violence and death. But notably, both sources acknowledge the principles of ownership, a chance of true progression within an unforgivable reality. It’s an ideal that romanticises Warm, bewitching John Morris with his new vision of a utopian world that benefits everyone. But it’s a statement that rings true towards Eli as a character. Unlike Of Mice and Men which ends with a gruesome fate, The Sisters Brothers relies on the subtle and tonal transition of leadership and power that becomes the film’s backbone.
The genuine reward of Audiard’s interpretation are characters escaping the one-dimensional tropes into something with depth, a reality that’s always present but not frequently associated with Westerns. We’re so used to the gun-slinging camaraderie and alpha-male bravado from films such as The Magnificent Seven and The Wild Bunch (something that Charlie impulsively has in abundance), that it’s slightly unnerving to watch a film carve out opportune moments to take a reflective step back to analyse its surroundings (as reflected in Eli with his forward thinking/toothbrush adopting mindfulness). It’s nowhere perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but it does provide a stable framework for exploration. Both Sisters Brothers (a brilliant play-on-words) represent the differing struggle of the new frontier – one who is desperately seeking an exit, no longer wishing to be defined by blood and violence and the other who undoubtedly (and drunkenly) lives in the moment, enjoying the reputation of being a notorious outlaw.
Given the extent of his career, it’s easy to forget the wealth of talent that John C. Reilly possesses, effortlessly versatile to switch between drama and comedy. If Audiard’s film has anything to boldly celebrate, then Reilly’s performance provides the soulful melancholy to believe in its rooted potential and ultimate destination. Make no mistake – John C. Reilly is having an outstanding year with a standout performance.
Yet strangely, there’s something about Audiard’s film that stops it from elevating to ‘greatness’ levels despite the abundance of outstanding talent on display. There’s a palpable anti-climatic presence contained within its entertaining and sentimental atmosphere. Oddly and loosely structured with its slow-burn, almost ponderous execution, the story waits patiently to progress, or it easily deflates on impact. Depending on personalised cinematic conventions, there are aspects where it struggles to maintain a cohesiveness or forward momentum, balancing between absurdity, humour and the action/adventure complex within its light plot.
In hindsight, it’s possible it mirrors the resonance of DeWitt’s best-selling novel, forcing its audience to dial back the quandary of expectations. Perhaps that’s the real key in understanding the beloved novelty this presents. Perhaps the indifference is the quiet yet aspirational understanding of our natural urges in cynicism and societal expectations that emboldens Charlie versus Eli’s warmth, reconciliation and peace and Warm’s futurism. On that compelling convention, it wins in that respect despite the underwhelming satisfaction the film aims to achieve.
By all means, The Sisters Brothers is not a terrible film but rather represents a refreshing take on the Western genre (or alt-Western if a new sub-genre was to be created). For his first English language film, Audiard handles the project with an assured and reflective competency, shining brightly due to Alexandre Desplat’s score and the sweeping panoramic vistas of Benoît Debie’s cinematography. As an audience, we’re not expecting this subverted genre convention, and its unspectacular narrative does take some time getting used to. Daring itself to be different and welcomed by some outstanding performances from its four leads, it’s not destined to change the world, but you won’t regret watching it either.
THE SISTERS BROTHERS screened as part of the BFI’s London Film Festival 2018 and will be released in cinemas on 5th April 2019.