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aka - Frères Sisters, Les
France/Spain/Romania/Belarus 2018
Directed by
Jacques Audiard
122 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4.5 stars

The Sisters Brothers

Synopsis: Oregon 1851 and Charlie Sisters (Joaquin Phoenix) and his older brother Eli (John C. Reilly) work as hired guns for The Commodore (a briefly-seen Rutger Hauer). He sends them to meet John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal) who will hand over to them a prospector, Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed), who has developed a chemical formula that enables the detection of gold on river beds. Their job is to get the formula from Warm by any means and then kill him.

If you like revisionist Westerns you won’t want to miss French director Jacques Audiard’s outstanding contribution to the category. The Sisters Brothers is a humorous, poetic, surreal , and refreshingly original take on the oft-visited theme of frontier America on the cusp of civilization where greed is good, might is right and the way of the gun still holds. Audiard in his English-language debut, much as did Danish director Kristian Levring with his blistering revenge Western The Salvation in 2014, has taken this paradigmatically American genre to a whole new level.

Much of the film's originality comes from the imagination of Patrick DeWitt who wrote the 2011 novel of the same name on which the screenplay by the director with Thomas Bidegain is based.  Many of the familiar elements of the genre are here – the gunfights, the campfire colloquies, the whorehouse with its honky-tonk piano and the little house on the prairie – but each of these elements is presented in an unexpected way that combines tenderness with a sense of the existentially absurd.

As the title suggests the main focus on the Sisters brothers. Charlie (Phoenix) is wild and careless, suspicious and over-fond of the drink. Eli (Reilly) is solicitous, reflective and wanting to settle down.  Both are compunctionless killers.  

Phoenix and Reilly work beautifully together, Reilly who had optioned DeWitt's novel and is credited as a producer giving what is for me the stand-out role of his career to date. The two constantly bicker, as brothers will do, yet are bound by a deep affection grounded, as we find out, in a troubled past as they go ruthlessly about their business.  Whether arguing about Charlie’s choice of words or Eli’s vision of a settled life for them both, mundanity is seamlessly mixed with murder as they approach their destination and the bodies mount up.

Off-setting this pairing are Jake Gyllenhaal as bounty-hunter  (he fancies himself as a "detective") John Morris and Riz Ahmed as the man he is supposed to hand over to the brothers. The Thoreau-reading Morris becomes persuaded by Warm’s vision of a utopia he intends to build in Dallas,Texas, and instead of giving up Warm becomes his partner in the gold-gathering business. Although Gyllenhaal and Ahmed (who has starred with Gyllenhaal  in Nightcrawler in 2014) have less showy roles they are wonderful foils to the untutored brothers.

Gyllenhaal adopts an English accent and carefully enunciates his every word as the quietly resolute but slightly edgy bounty-hunter who keeps a diary (from which we hear extracts in Morris’s voice-over) reflecting on his experience of frontier life. Sharp and focused, Ahmed is his well-drawncounterpart  and the men readily form an easily understandable friendship. These two narrative strands are developed independently for a good part of the film only combining, with tragic results, in the final act.

It is impossible to convey all the delights of this self-consciously literary, off-kilter yet poignant film that deservedly won Audiard the Silver Lion as Best Director at the Venice Film Festival (Alexandre Desplat‘s score and Benoît Debie’s cinematography add significantly to the mix). See it and you’ll know what I mean.

FYI: Surprisingly despite its critical success, the film failed at the box office. If you enjoyed it be sure to check out the Coen brothers' Western The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, also released in 2018.




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