The European take on this quintessentially American genre has become part of its history thanks to Italian directors like Sergio Leone, but Audiard’s French perspective brings a completely different tone and sensibility to the form; it is at once comical and wry whilst finding depth and pathos in the characters and their stories.
THE SISTERS BROTHERS, adapted by Audiard and long time collaborator Thomas Bidegain from the novel by Patrick DeWitt, tells the story of two hapless assassins, Eli Sisters (John C Reilly) and his younger, but bolder brother Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix). They work for a nefarious baron of commerce known as The Commodore (a barely visible Rutger Hauer) bumping off the poor unfortunates who have crossed or betrayed him in some way. After a bungled mission at the start of the film, The Commodore appoints Charlie the Lead Man in the operation and sends them off to find and kill the improbably named Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed), a chemist who has stumbled upon a formula that could be worth a fortune. Helping them out on their mission is a well read and well spoken scout John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal) whose job it is to tail the chemist until the brothers can catch up with him and execute (quite laterally) their task. In some ways, this is a bit of a road movie, as the characters make their way along the Oregon Trail heading form small town to bigger town and eventually to the goldfields of California. But really, the good guy-bad guy stuff is just an excuse for Audiard’s meditation on the nature of loyalty and betrayal and the destructive power of greed and envy and the higher question of what it means to be a man.
As they make their way along the trail, Eli and Charlie discuss their outlook on life, their understandings of their difficult childhood with a violent father and their hopes and aspirations for the future. Whilst Eli is the elder, his sensitivity and thoughtfulness makes him the more vulnerable to Charlie’s more ruthless approach to life. Eli wants to leave this life of killing behind for the finer things in life… like love and family (he carries a shawl with him; a gift from a ladyfriend, that he nuzzles up to like a security blanket, sniffing the scent embedded in its fibres for comfort when life on the trail gets too hard). When they eventually catch up with their quarry, their mismatched views get in the way of fulfilling their mission and the story takes an unexpected but welcome turn.
This is such a beautifully made film with picturesque cinematography by Benoît Debie and a quirky, moody soundtrack by Alexandre Desplat. The cast is terrific, most notably Reilly (who’s had a few misses in the recent past) and Phoenix (who, after great performances last year in He Won’t Get Far On Foot and You Were Never Really Here seems to be on a roll). It’s no Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (George Roy Hill, 1969) although it shares some of the wit and astute observations of William Goldman’s screenplay. Neither is it a hard revisionist work the likes of Unforgiven (Clint Eastwood, 1992) although it does continue that tradition of cracking open the ‘cowboy myth’ to show us what’s inside of these tough, ruthless frontier characters. Whilst it doesn’t occupy the same echelon as those two classics, THE SISTERS BROTHERS does stand alone from many other Westerns in its ability to tell a sensitive and moving story about authentically drawn characters who could just as easily be found in other genres or, indeed, amongst ourselves.
When the deeds are done (although not in the ways we expected) the film draws to a more whimsical conclusion that unfolds through a highly stylised, self-consciously filmic sequence that pulls us out of the tone of the rest of the film into a place where we (along with the Sisters Brothers) can reflect on the nature of the story that we’ve just been told, and consider how its very human elements might shape the future for these two unique individuals.