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‘The Sisters Brothers’ (review)

Produced by Rosa Attab,
Pascal Caucheteux, Michael De Luca,
Allison Dickey, John C. Reilly

Screenplay by Jacques Audiard,
Thomas Bidegain

Based on the novel by Patrick deWitt
Directed by Jacques Audiard
Starring John C. Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix,
Jake Gyllenhaal, Riz Ahmed, Rutger Hauer,
Carol Kane, Allison Tolman, Rebecca Root

 

Nestled somewhere between True Grit and No Country For Old Men (with maybe a touch of Raising Arizona), The Sisters Brothers is not a Coen Brothers film, but it often feels like one. It’s a film about bitter men that takes its sweet time getting anywhere.

French director Jacques Audiard, whose previous films include the Cannes Grand Prix winner A Prophet, takes the reins of this shaggy dog tale in which two hitman brothers attempt to complete a mission in the Old West.

Elder brother Eli Sisters (John C. Reilly) is the sensible, always exasperated one, who’d just as soon be back home running a shop as shooting down criminals. But he’s got to keep an eye on hotheaded brother Charlie (Joaquin), who wouldn’t dream of doing anything else for a living.

As the film starts, they’re given a task by The Commodore (Rutger Hauer, who’s seen so briefly that it’s kind of a joke in itself). They’re supposed to hunt down Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed), who they’re told has stolen from their boss. They’re aided in their efforts by detective John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), who has tracked Warm down but is too much of a gentleman to do the actual killing.

The plan goes awry, naturally, and the two-hour film makes us wait for the inevitable meet-up between the two sets of men.

In the meantime, we’re treated to philosophical ramblings, random shootouts, and Charlie’s drunken exploits. Phoenix easily steals the movie as the fiery Charlie, the most colorful character of the bunch. But Reilly’s humorously low-key performance anchors the film.

Warm ends up being the film’s biggest surprise: As played by the endlessly likable Ahmed, he’s no thief: He’s a chemist who’s come up with a formula, he says, for finding gold in any river. Whether it works or not, and what it’s worth to everyone involved, is the question to be settled.

With the plot being almost being beside the point, The Sisters Brothers is first and foremost a character study. It’s a meditation on brotherhood, friendship, and whether people who do bad things are capable of change. It could just as easily be a film noir set in a series of cities in the ’40s or ’50s as in the Oregon Territories of the 1851.

Add in Gyllenhaal (with an odd British accent) and Ahmed in an unexpected Nightcrawler reunion and that’s a damn fine lineup for any film.

I can’t say how faithful it is to the book (at least one detail of the ending seems to have been changed), but I assume the way the characters frequently mock each other’s choice of words is straight out of the book.

Alexandre Desplat’s wonderful score is one of my favorite things about the film: It gracefully tides us from scene to scene without calling attention to itself and skilfully avoids any shmaltz or clichés.

Audiard doesn’t always make the haphazardness of the plot work, but, it’s an unexpectedly charming film in its own rambling way.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

 

 

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