THE SISTERS BROTHERS
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Jacques Audiard
Screenwriter: Jacques Audiard, Thomas Bidegain based on the novel by Patrick Dewitt
Cast: John C. Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix, Jake Gyllenhaal, Riz Ahmed, Rutger Hauser, Carol Kane
Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 9/17, 2018
Opens: September 21, 2018
There are no Indians in “The Sisters Brothers,” though it’s only 1851 in the Oregon territory, just seven years before that beautiful entity became a state. You don’t need the Native Americans, because the native white people are happy enough killing one another. In fact the happiness comes not only from the exhilaration that some feel when they take down a fellow but from the money that’s available should you practice the profession of hit man. If you’re looking for a Western with characters resembling Hopalong Cassidy, Tom Mix and Gabby Hayes, this movie is not for you. I’m not entirely sure it’s for me either. While watching, I kept thinking of the mindless old horse operas with the cavalry that comes along just in time, blowing the bugles and saving the exploitative white guys from the people who were here first. Though the territory comes across as the West, this is more a character study of two brothers, an older one, Eli Sisters (John C. Reilly) who is on the cusp of maturity and does not like taking too many chances, and a young ‘un, Charlie Sisters (Joaquin Phoenix) who is regularly drunk and reckless. The pair are hired by Commodore (Rutger Hauser), offering a bounty for delivering Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed), a chemist, aiming to torture him until he gives up a formula for a chemical that lights up the water, making it easier to find gold. We’re looking at the mid-19th century gold rush. Despite the shootings that crop up loud and clear in the beginning, middle and end of the film, director Jacques Audiard’s aim in using Patrick Dewitt’s novel is to evoke dark comedy, though truth to tell, it’s too light to be a serious look at the murderous lives of hitmen and too heavy to be even a comedy, even a dark one.
Jacques Audiard is a French director whose “A Prophet,” dealing with a young Arab man sent to a French prison was arguably the best foreign feature of 2009. But this time Audiard takes his chances with an English language movie, though the characters in 1851 are speaking modern English and one guy, Detective John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), speaks with a ridiculously highfalutin accent. For his part, Morris is sent to capture the chemist but instead bonds with him particularly because the man promises to deliver the gold and to split the proceeds with him.
We see that the brothers are living like hoboes and that perhaps that’s the style of the Wild West. In fact when they reach San Francisco and go to a hotel, they’re amazed at flush toilets and sinks that supply water. Both treat toothbrushes like new found toys, as Eli Sisters, who takes on the role of chief comic character, has fun brushing what are undoubtedly no longer pearly whites while reading instructions on the technique. One of the cute bits finds Eli in a bordello giving the hooker a shawl, which touches the woman’s heart to such an extent (men have not heretofore been kind to her) that she leaves Eli and goes downstairs. In one instance a bug crawls into Eli’s mouth while he is sleeping afflicting him with an illness. But that headache and nausea are nothing compared to what happens to the two when they wade into a water that has been treated with the chemist’s liquid.
The movie plods from one scene to another as though proud that this is not a stereotypical western with Indians, cavalry and settlers. Since apparently nothing in the U.S. can show the West the way it should be shown in 1851, Romania and Spain serve for the locations.
121 minutes. © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – C
Acting – B
Technical – B
Overall – C+