Dir: Jacques Audiard; Screenplay: Jacques Audiard and Thomas Bidegain, based on the novel by Patrick DeWitt
Cast: John C. Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix, Riz Ahmed, Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Root
122 mins, USA, 2018
It’s been some time since I saw two of Jacques Audiard’s previous films, A Prophet and Rust and Bone, but I seem to remember that in both of them we saw how some of the best aspects of human behaviour – generosity, thoughtfulness, idealism – can spring out of harsh and violent surroundings, and take us by surprise; so too, here, are surprises, in the beautiful landscape of America’s west coast where most men are driven by the greed for gold.
Oregon 1851, the gold rush. The Sisters brothers, Charlie and Eli (Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly), a duo of crack shots, are hired as hit men by the ‘Commodore’. Their target is a young chemist called Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed), who is being tracked by another employee of the Commodore, the journal-keeping John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal). When all the rivers of the west are being painstakingly panhandled for deposits of gold, Warm has come up with a compound that makes the gold in the water light up to reveal its whereabouts. The Sisters brothers merely have to follow Morris’s instructions (in notes left for them in the various prospector towns they pass through), turn up and kill their man – after torturing him to reveal the secret formula for his compound. But circumstances undermine all plans …
The film focuses on these four men, at first as two separate pairs – Charlie and Eli, and Warm and Morris – and then, after they unite against a common enemy, as a foursome. As in A Prophet, language and literacy are thematically important.
Ismay: I thought this was really good, but I’ve seen many excellent Westerns which are variously tragic, comic, or violent and gory. The Sisters Brothers does a bit of each, and although each part is done well, I can’t put this film in top place. I have to say however that Eli’s encounter with a spider is brilliant, and the ending is absolutely satisfactory.
A Western that is gory, tragic, comic, and, finally, redemptive. What’s not to like?
The Sisters Brothers is the first film I’ve gone out to see in the cinema for ages. I’ve been hard at work trying to finish a book, at it until 6 pm every evening, then slumping in front of the telly before falling asleep. I finished the final (for now) rewrite a month ago but then had to deal with the endnotes (595 of them) which took another three or four weeks. So I’ve managed to watch a few things on DVD – all the Bruce Lee films which Ismay gave me at my request for Christmas – blimey, talk about body count!; Jaws (thanks again, Ismay), oh, just as good as I remembered from all those years ago, and obviously (I now realise) the root of my phobia about stepping into small (or indeed medium-sized) boats.
And on Netflix I watched Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, a black-and-white film about domestic servitude in Mexico City in the 1970s, which was simultaneously slow-paced and highly dramatic, in fact not unlike his previous film, Gravity. One scene in particular sticks with me: not the highly-charged one at the end where Cleo the village-woman servant (a mesmerizing performance from Yalitza Aparicio) saves her employer’s children from drowning, but an odd scene where she is watching a field full of men doing martial arts training, one of whom is the creep who has made her pregnant and abandoned her. The instructor tells the men to close their eyes, stand on one leg, and raise their hands to meet above their heads. They can’t do it, and fall about hopelessly. But in the distance, on the sidelines, amongst a straggle of spectators, Cleo is doing as they’ve been instructed, successfully, serenely.
That was soonish after Christmas. More recently on Netflix I watched Jordan Peele’s Get Out, in which cute white college student Rose (Allison Williams) takes her new black boyfriend Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) home to meet the parents in their lovely house in the country. It’s not just a really funny anatomisation and send-up of racism within white America’s chattering-classes, but is also absolutely hairy-scary. I was sitting there shouting at Daniel Kaluuya, Get out! Get Out! I won’t tell you whether he managed it or not.
I wanted to watch Get Out because I was hoping to go and see Jordan Peele’s new film Us with Ismay last week, but for various reasons, including having my soul sapped and my spirit sucked out by a day spent in A&E, I didn’t manage it. It’s no longer on at the Watershed but Ismay tells me it’s still on at mainstream cinemas, so here’s hoping …