At the Movies with Alan Gekko: The Sisters Brothers “2018”

At the Movies with Alan Gekko: The Sisters Brothers “2018”

MPAA Rating: R/Genre: Western/Stars: John C. Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix, Jake Gyllenhaal, Riz Ahmed, Rebecca Root, Allison Tolman, Rutger Hauer, Carol Kane, Ian Reddington, Richard Brake, Creed Bratton, Aldo Maland, Theo Exarchopoulos/Runtime: 121 minutes

I think it can safely be said that the land of movie magic really does not make Westerns on the level that they used to. Yet the reason has nothing to do with the genre itself or the components that make it up since there are slices of cinema like Hostiles from 2017 or the remake of The Magnificent Seven in 2016 respectively which show that the old cowboy boots can still be rocked every once in a while. Rather, it’s for a couple of reasons. The first of these is because here lately the genre has been able to blend quite well with other genres of film which has given us such masterpieces as Logan, No Country for Old Men and Hell or High Water respectively. The second is that when the film market is overrun with franchises and comic book shenanigans to name but a couple the fact is that Westerns aren’t able to reach as massive an audience as they deserve. Perhaps no finer example of this can be found than the fairly under the radar 2018 slice of cinema I am reviewing today known as The Sisters Brothers. I say this because yes this slice of cinema is one that in many respects is a traditional Western albeit one that feels like a buddy cop-stream of comedy running throughout. At the same time though, this slice of cinema is not one that gives us just the “old school Western” that is tried and true in cinema, but instead is one that takes great delight in throwing the genre for a curve seemingly every single chance that it gets in a manner that would make the Coens proud. Suffice it to say that yes it may have flaws, but The Sisters Brothers is by no means a terrible film. Rather, it is a well-made and especially well-acted yet also refreshing stab of a time-honored cinematic genre that might not be the best of the best in the West, but is nevertheless a rollicking good time to be had if given the opportunity to do so.

The plot is as follows: Taking us all the way back in the long ago year of 1851 in the wild and crazy times of the American West, the slice of cinema that is The Sisters Brothers gets underway by introducing us to Charlie and Eli Sisters. A pair of brothers who also happen to be a dynamic duo of bounty hunters/guns for hire who were snatched from a fairly traumatizing childhood by a fairly well-off Northwestern crime lord/ businessman known only as the Commodore. A man incidentally who, in order to keep his business empire in one piece let alone at the top, assigns the brothers and others like them in his employ to go out and “take care of” anyone who either starts to threaten his business, double crosses him in any way however slight or trivial, or both. Yet while we are able to see that Charlie, the arrogant, trigger-happy, and more than slightly scarred brother is more than willing to engage in these kinds of behaviors, that’s not entirely true of his older brother Eli. This is because Eli, in addition to being a lot more sensitive to say nothing of shy and keeping very much to himself a lot, has also slowly but surely begun to figure out that getting out while the getting is good could just be the best way to acquire some form of spiritual redemption for all the visceral and bloody actions that he has engaged in throughout the course of his life. As a result, we see that these two distinct trains of thought have seriously started to take its toll not only on the brothers and their relationship, but also their effectiveness as a team as well. Yet just as things look like they are about to reach a critical point of no return, we see that the brothers and their lives are, unbeknownst to them, set down a new path. A path that takes the shape and form of being assigned on a mission through the Northwestern United States by their employer to locate a part-time prospector and ambitious chemist, but full-time fugitive by the name of Hermann Kermit Warm who might have just conjured up an ingenious scientific formula to help better locate gold in rivers all over. We soon learn that the plan is that the brothers are to meet up with a scholarly private investigator also in the Commodore’s employ by the name of John Morris who will keep Warm in one place long enough for the brothers to arrive and deploy whatever methods necessary to wrest the formula from him before “disposing of him”. Unfortunately for our dynamic duo, we see that Morris soon actually starts to develop sympathy for Warm and, being lured in by his dream to utilize the profits from the gold to construct a utopian society of sorts, decides to work with him rather than turn him in. As a result, we see that our brothers are forced to take embark on an odyssey that through skirmishes both big and small will inadvertently see them finally forced to reexamine not only who they are as people, but who they also are maybe meant to be as well…..

Now operating as a vibrant and lovingly threaded blanket of sorts of the time honored themes found in the Western genre, The Sisters Brothers is the first English-language slice of cinema from its’ French helmer and, as seen in his prior efforts, his distinct mix of both an unyielding sense of realism as well as his melodious utilization of imagery bursts forth in this thus giving us a truly distinct entry in this time-honored genre. Indeed, much in the same vein as a lot of rather unorthodox film helmers who have dabbled in this distinct genre, Audiard manages to reconsider the typical narrative pathway in some truly interesting ways including the fact that the narrative doesn’t seem to go the way you think it might and the characters are truly three dimensional in the best way possible. At the same time though, this slice of cinema does manage to insert itself quite well into the rest of Audiard’s filmography. Indeed it may have been filmed in, of all places, Romania and Spain, but this slice of cinema does a terrific job at utilizing the landscape in a way that would feel right at home in a Western shot by someone like Anthony Mann. Indeed much in the same vein as how Mann utilized the landscape to act as a nuanced reflection of how the characters in his films were truly complex individuals who were neither purely good nor evil, but a mix of both, we see that this slice of cinema offers us something similar courtesy of making the landscape one that is seemingly perilous at any given turn and thus designed only for people who are good with a gun, like our titular duo, or the insanely brave to try and survive. Yet when it comes time for a gun battle to occur, which does happen in this slice of cinema, we see that Audiard makes the creative choice to film these action beats less as prolonged and drawn-out moments and more as brief and suspenseful bursts that don’t ever once cause the bleak comedy undercurrent running through the entirety of the film to come to a stop thus doing a beautiful job of keeping you aware of the type of individuals this narrative revolves around. Finally, I also think it should be said that the score provided to the film by one Alexandre Desplat does a phenomenal job at helping provide an on point tempo to the sprawling odyssey at the heart of this slice of cinema. Suffice it to say that Audiard and his creative team’s fondness for this distinct genre is very much present that it manages to result in us as movie goers getting an entry in the Western genre that can, from behind the camera, stand side by side with some of the better recent offerings the genre has seen fit to give us.

Now it should also be said that due to the majority of this slice of cinema happening on the odyssey of sorts that the titular duo embark on, Audiard wisely lets his performers loose to make the most of their respective characters and in that regard this slice of cinema is beautifully cast and acted. This starts with John C. Reilly as Eli Sisters and he is absolutely fantastic. Indeed Reilly’s complex and funny performance in this slice of cinema really did remind me of his roles in such films as Boogie Nights and Magnolia from the 90s to name but a couple where we see Reilly manage to merge his skills at comedy along with a splash of drama to conjure up a fairly odd yet on-point balancing act performance-wise that not a lot of actors could pull off this effectively. Indeed, as portrayed by Reilly, the character of Eli is one that is trying desperately to get out of this life of gunfights in the morning and booze for dinner right down to buying himself this new creation known as a “toothbrush” as well as making the most of the luxuries in a hotel the pair stay in at San Francisco, but who finds that until he can get his brother to curb his demons for good the idea of peace is one that will constantly elude them. Suffice it to say that Reilly manages to yes have moments of comedy, but just as importantly more than his fair share of moments of pathos and solemn contemplation as well thus making for a performance that is truly special.  On the other side of this brotherly coin however is Joaquin Phoenix as Charlie Sisters and honestly this character is one that fits Phoenix to a t. This is because, as portrayed by Phoenix, the character of Charlie is one that can best be described as a wild, crazy, and quite abrasive verbally man child. Indeed here is a guy who cares less about living a long life in peace and more about gunning down as many people and drinking as many alcoholic beverages as he possibly can though I guess I should mention his skill as a gunslinger far exceeds his skill as a drinker. A fact we come to see when Charlie is so hungover the day after a nightly binge drinking session that he’ll literally fall off his horse thus testing Eli’s patience as well as keeping them just out of reach of their intended goal. Yet despite the fact that each of the two is a broken individual and are consistently butting heads, we also see that they aren’t really complete without the other in their lives thus giving their brotherly bond a vibe of volatility yes, but a wonderfully unexpected degree of tenderness as well. On the other side of the coin however, we see that the film makes the bond that forms between Warm and Morris a heck of a lot more optimistic. Indeed this pair is two learned and upstanding people with the delightfully hopeful Warm (a wonderful Riz Ahmed) aiming to, through the proceeds conjured up the film’s MacGuffin, start up an idealistic new society of sorts just outside Dallas that promotes the growth of mankind more through scientific achievement and equality for all than anything else and the stoic yet intellectual Morris (wonderfully portrayed in this by the dependably great Jake Gyllenhaal) finding himself so taken with the idea that he is willing to abandon his mission and partner up with Warm on this cause thus putting them both in Phoenix and Reilly’s crosshairs. Suffice it to say that with terrific work from all four of these acting icons, The Sisters Brothers manages to be yet another entry in Audiard’s filmography whose tone can’t exactly be nailed down, but is also one that is as fulling, emotional, and novel as a slice of cinema could ever aspire to be.

All in all and at the end of the day, the 2018 slice of cinema that is The Sisters Brothers is a quite unusually subtle and tactful entry in the Western genre about the bonds of brotherhood that happens to have one of its brotherly duos be a pair of siblings who are also cold to the bone assassins for hire. Suffice it to say that it is a rather unique approach that in turn demands a novel handling of its respective genre. A handling which happens to be exactly what skilled French film helmer Jacques Audiard manages to contribute here to this slice of cinema, incidentally his first slice of cinema where the language being spoken is English. Having watched the film through to the end however, I can honestly say that Audiard was a brilliant choice to helm this slice of cinema. This is because, with a lot of his prior cinematic efforts, one can see that what this particular helmer is incredibly gifted at crafting for an audience is that he excels at making truly bountiful character analyses about individuals who, even as the world tries to put the odds firmly against them at seemingly every given turn, still try to do the best that they can to say nothing for the right thing and in my opinion there is no better framework in the annals of American history to explore that idea than the Old West. With that being said however, it is the delightful chemistry between not only Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly as the titular and seemingly consistently bickering siblings, but also between Jake Gyllenhaal and Riz Ahmed as a different yet no less delightful kind of brotherhood (though one that is a complete 180 from their work in Nightcrawler) that manages to completely morph the brutal and dynamic circumstances on display into a surprisingly agreeable as well as personal odyssey that was purposely made in order to throw fans of this time-honored genre of movie magic for a complete loop. Thus it may be a slice of cinema revolving around manliness and the bonds between brothers of all types complete with viscerality as well as a wonderful level of gallows comedy, but The Sisters Brothers is also one Western slice of cinema that shows you not only how hostile life can be, but also how even though innocence can be neglected in the midst of the insanity there is still hope that a degree of humanity can be located in a way that you most assuredly may certainly not have be expecting, but by the time the credits begin to roll you won’t equally as likely be able to forget any time soon either. Make of that dear reader what thou will. On a scale of 1-5 I give The Sisters Brothers “2018” a solid 4 out of 5.