Back in the saddle with Jacques Audiard
Jacques Audiard is the most American of French filmmakers. In his case, this is a very good thing. He makes better American movies than Americans make French movies, and than most American directors in general. He is not of the stream of abstract ideas and intellectual pontificating in French cinema. His movies, Un Prophet, Rust and Bone, Read My Lips, The Beat My Heart Skipped, Dheepan, tell big stories, full of incident and drama.
And now he has made his Western, a foundational myth of rapacious capitalism and its never ending cycle of violence and greed. With an excellent script by Audiard and his longtime collaborator Thomas Bidegain, The Sisters Brothers is a brutal yet entertaining and affecting movie about two brothers who can’t escape violence. John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix play Eli and Charlie Sisters. Whereas Charlie is a loose cannon and killing machine, Eli is even tempered and longs for stability. Both actors are mesmerizing. Reilly is effortless and charming as usual. He is in the moment at every moment and you can feel his crushing longing for love and quiet, his devastating exhaustion with the cycle of doom to which Charlie has tethered him. Phoenix is riveting and quite darkly funny. His Charlie is not interested at all in peace and quiet. He is a bona fide sociopath, actually proud of his exploits. And why not? He’s really good at killing. The prospect of settling down and opening a business fills him with stupefaction and horror. The brothers are pursuing someone who is pursuing someone. Basically everybody is on everybody else’s trail for some betrayal or other that needs to be cleansed with blood. It would play almost like slapstick if it weren’t so brutal.
Riz Ahmed is impressive as a prospector with a chemical formula to easily find gold and an idea for a utopian society without greed. He’s a mensch in the free-for-all of the gold rush. He is accompanied by a John Morris, played by Jake Gyllenhaal as a fastidious and pretentious intellectual whose grandiosity barely conceals he has also caught the bug of greed. Society being the first elemental need of survival, At some point all of these outlaws have no choice but to band together. They almost create a bit of a startup a la Silicon Valley. Alas, entrepreneurship and organization are no match for basic, stupid greed which brings about is a very bitter twist which is a distant cousin to the end of The Treasure of The Sierra Madre.
At first the movie seems to promise a breezy caper about two bantering brothers who are opposites in sensibility. There is plenty of that, though no one really plays it for laughs. Extreme violence and an unflinching depiction of a life of lawlessness balance out the gallows humor. This Western has no sheriff to order the disorder and punish the evildoers. There are no Indians to blame for the savagery. The responsibility for the mayhem and destruction lie squarely on the violent genes of America. In this sweeping, majestic Western, the good guys are punished and the bad guys get a pass. They survive, or die of old age: there’s no real justice. This may be the most subversive use of the Western genre, not only to unfurl a rich and layered metaphor for the ravages of capitalist greed, but to put to bed the naive notion of American justice in which American cinema and culture are firmly rooted: the tired business about good guys and bad guys gets a much more dimensional treatment here. People are both good and evil, and their fates have nothing to do with their behavior, whether angelic or appalling.
The imagery is majestic, with Spain and Romania passing quite astoundingly for the Wild West. The jazzy score by Alexandre Desplat (how busy is this man?), faintly reminiscent of Morricone’s Western scores, makes you take notice. Audiard handles the jarring tonality of the movie with his customary skill. He is a deeply empathetic director, who shows understanding and patience both for rotten apples and decent people. The Sisters Brothers overcomes a certain initial awkwardness and gets deeper and more satisfying as it rambles along. After expertly delivered twists and revelations, Audiard manages a final act of incredible tenderness with a lyrical, almost dreamlike scene of a homecoming. The mere sight of a made bed and a mother (the magnificent Carol Kane) signal a rebirth, a return to civilization.