THE SISTERS BROTHERS – movie review

THE SISTERS BROTHERS

Annapurna Pictures
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+

YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE – movie review

YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE

Amazon Studios
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Directed by:  Lynne Ramsay
Screenwriter: Lynne Ramsay adapted from Jonathan Ames’ novel
Joaquin Phoenix, Ekaterina Samsonov, Alessandro Nivola, Alex Manette, John Doman, Judith Roberts
Location:  Park Avenue, NYC, 5/22/18
Opens: April 6, 2018

Novelist Jonathan Ames, whose 112-page novella “You Were Never Really Here” comes across as a book written to be put on the screen, may not have had the current administration in the White House and Capitol Hill in mind when he described the corruption endemic in our system.  No matter.  Corruption is embraced under many generations of politicians in the U.S., which is why this adaptation situates its evil within the East Side-Midtown area of Manhattan, close to the UN and to the purveyors of capital.  It may or may not be a coincidence that the mansion depicted in the final scenes could resemble a likeness of  breathtaking wealth during the gilded age, where money rules, where in fact there are no rules, and to get things done all you have to do is hire the right kind of guy to do it.

In this noirish adaptation, writer-director Lynne Ramsay—whose “We Need to Talk About Kevin” about a mother made meek because of an “incident” must struggle to love her strange child—focuses now on another person of disturbed psyche.  And who can blame Joe (Joaquin Phoenix)?  He was brutalized by his father, became an FBI agent and then a soldier in the Iraq War, and sees ghosts wherever he goes.  The specters are often women with dead eyes who stalk him, evoked by his experience in Iraq where he sees a girl killed.  He simply was never really there for her.  He dedicates his remaining time to the service of a hit man, but so far as we can see he’s a good guy.  He is part of an organization that rescues girls kidnapped for sex slavery, with Nina Voto (Ekaterina Samsonov) standing in for one thirteen-year-old that he rescues, but her own zonked out appearance could have resulted as much from abuse she faced from her father, State Senator Albert Voto (Alex Manette), as from her treatment as a sex slave.  The senator tells Joe, his hit man (for $50,000) that she often ran away from home.  Her unprotected status made her easy prey for the perverted criminals who hooked her into their lair.

The picture is filled with violence, yet don’t expect to see a grand build-up leading to a massive assassination.  The particularly artistic tone of the eighty-nine minute film presents violence often as events that had already happened, as though Joe was conducting the fury and the bloodshed off screen like the ancient Greek tragedians.  His weapon of choice is a hammer, and he appears to buy a different one for each killing.  One of the killings has poetry.  As his victim is on the ground, blood gushing from his stomach, Joe lies down with the man, joins him in singing a song from the radio, and holds his hand—whether to ease his pain of death or to sense when the fellow has taken his final breath.

Joe’s gentle moments appear in his treatment of his mother (Judith Roberts) with whom he lives, and also in his care for the rescued thirteen-year-old.  Most important as we look over the whole scene is that rarely has a crime drama been told with such a lean and mean focus, cutting everything to the bone—with moments of ironic peace such as when Joe buries a victim, large plastic bag and all, into the lake, wading into the water with suit and tie.

This picture is all about Joaquin Phoenix’s performance, one that will hopefully be remembered at end-year awards time.  The grizzled man with a huge beard, glassy eyes, with the aura of someone wandering with seeming aimlessness as though through a dream albeit with a specific purpose, is mesmerizing. Yet the film is for a special taste, for an audience that does not need to see the actual commissions of crimes graphically reproduced, but is more than content to focus primarily not on the brutality but on one disturbed man’s psyche.

Rated R.  89 Minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, NY Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – A-
Technical – B+
Overall – B+