' ' Cinema Romantico: The Sisters Brothers

Monday, October 29, 2018

The Sisters Brothers

“The Sisters Brothers” opens in darkness. The eponymous old west assassins, Eli (John C. Reilly) and Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix) Sisters, having located whatever ruffians they are after, fearsomely announce their presence, which we hear and do not see because director Jacques Audiard sets the moment at night with the camera up high and looking down on the barest outline of a desolate 1851 landscape. Then, gunfire erupts, the flash of each bullet momentarily illuminating the darkened sky. It is visually striking; it is also emblematic of “The Sisters Brothers” itself which has a lot of plot, several characters, and a few themes, though it deliberately refrains from enlightening you as to what this all adds up to until the very end.

The Sisters Brothers are employed by their wealthy benefactor, The Commodore, frequently referenced, hardly seen, never heard from, to find a chemist, Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed), in possession of some secret formula set to blow the gold rush up. A mystery man named John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal) is tasked with making Warm’s acquaintance and keeping him in place until The Sisters Brothers can arrive to do the nasty work. If it sounds like a standard set-up, “The Sisters Brothers”, based on a novel by Patrick DeWitt, is never quite so invariable, the sturdy-sounding narrative revealed as metaphorically akin to Little Bill’s house in “Unforgiven”, less solidly built than delightfully askew, constantly zagging.

“Unforgiven”, of course, was a classic revisionist western, and “The Sisters Brothers”, as a scene where Charlie takes a leak before a breathtaking mountain vista goes to show, yearns to take a little piss out of the western too. The Brothers are antiheroes through and through, making you wonder who you’re rooting for, and whether such (archaic) concerns mattered in the first place, established straight away in the aftermath of that opening sequence when they accidentally set a barn ablaze, marveling afterward at their own ineptitude. Not that they are complete klutzes, proving their worth in gun battles, though just prior to one Charlie has to vomit up the night’s booze before drawing his pistol, sort of reimagining the charismatic drunkenness of Val Kilmer’s Doc Holliday as Bluto Blutarsky’s obnoxiousness. That you are drawn to them anyway is a credit to Reilly and Phoenix giving the Brothers’ fractured but familiar relationship great life by making their relentless squabbling feel like second nature.

Morris and Warm, on the other hand, are bound not by blood but gold as the formula becomes less about the chemical than the spiritual. When Warm tries to talk his way out of being held hostage by explaining his visions of grandeur for a new democratic society funded by all the gold he’s certain his formula will help him to obtain, Gyllenhaal simply speeds up breathing, like this idea is working its way down into Morris’s bones. And Gyllenhaal’s erudite intonation, one at odds with his surroundings but in tune with Ahmed’s as Warm’s, makes it believable, then, what these two men see each other. How much they see each other is furtively left open in one particular unspoken look between the two men, which might well be something akin to love though it could just as easily be an emergent disciple under a spell.

If gold brings these two men together, it threatens to become the wedge between The Sisters Brothers, with Eli wanting to forget the job and make due with what they have and Charlie wondering why they would ever want to go anywhere, a predictable plot development that is nevertheless vividly rendered. Indeed, it comes to a head at dinner in San Francisco hotel, the stately setting and their fancy dress suggesting each one’s alternate vision of life, with Eli sitting up and looking proper and Charlie slumped back and cradling a cigar, a la The Commodore, whom he later admits to wanting to essentially become, a moment where Phoenix lets an astonishing smile play across his face that is not so much wicked intent as childlike naivety.

Reilly, on other hand, plays Eli not so much naïve as out of time earnest, glimpsed in an early moment where he ignores a saloon for a quiet supper, asking the woman who serves him “Is this dill?”, a line reading the actor infuses with an oddly heartrending incredulousness. It betrays a curiosity with the world around him, one illustrated throughout, where his encounters with toothbrushes and flush toilets are not jokes on a yokel but examples of understated wonder. Not that Eli is able to act on these inklings for something new, which Reilly also makes clear with the resigned protectiveness he exudes whenever his brother screws up. And it is that, one for both, both for one, that becomes the movie’s through-line. If that sounds like an obvious lesson, it is one conveyed through a string of anti-climaxes rather than banalities, not so much abandoning what it’s all been about as gradually honing it on it, and building to a twist concerning casting (don’t check IMDb!) that in an instant clarifies The Sister Brothers’ stock.

Sometimes where you are going and where you have been are one and the same.

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