A good film will often seem even better if you go in without knowing much about it. I went with my friend Carlos to see “The Sisters Brothers”. I knew nothing except that the title was too “cute” (often a warning), but he had read the novel it was based on, liked it and was eager to see if they did a good job. Well, he was as pleased as I was. But there was a bonus: many of us have long been waiting for John C. Reilly to give that “career-defining” performance, but he needed a special kind of role to give it to us.
I was also unfamiliar with French director Jacques Audiard, who wrote the screenplay with Thomas Bidegain, from a novel by Patrick deWitt. I admit, too, that I was apprehensive about Audiard. When foreign directors make a film here, they sometimes betray a core of ignorance about the culture; the basic American “character”. Martin McDonough, for instance, botched “Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri” with a strained and unconvincing presentation of what “Americans” are supposed to be like. But I got none of that feeling here.
That may be because it concerned a part of the American past that we’re not overly familiar with. It is set in the Oregon territory, 1851, but better described as “hell on earth”. While there were a few shots of nice California greenery, the overall look was dry wasteland. You thought “The Revenant” was bleak? Nah! You won’t find any of the Native American or wildlife from that film here. That’s because none of them were stupid enough to stay. The natural biosphere consisted entirely of insects and some unlucky fish. I don’t count the horses because they were all captives of their masters. No, the total population was – overwhelmingly! – men with guns. And the only reason they came was to find gold. Not by prospecting for it themselves, but to rob it from the men who did.
The Sisters brothers were wild Charles, played by Joachim Phoenix, and his older, more contemplative brother Eli, played by John C. Reilly. They are in the employ of “the Commodore” – unseen until late in the film – who sends out the brothers, as well as other grizzled hitmen, to kill anyone he thinks has cheated him. Or, in this case, to abduct a chemist named Warm, played by Riz Ahmed, who has a secret formula for producing gold by chemistry. The idea is to torture him until he reveals the secret, then kill him. But, Morris, one of the Commodore’s scouts, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, betrays the Commodore, and teams up with Warm on a scheme to use the gold to start a utopian community in Texas.
Anyway, there’s lots of hard riding, shooting and bad men chasing other bad men. But Eli, you see, is strangely hesitant, unlike Charles who’ll kill for the kick of it. Eli has a kind of yearning for something, and he’s not sure what it is. It might have to do with the brothers having left the family home, as young men, after an act of violence. Another clue is his pathetic, and meticulously choreographed role-playing session with a gentle, but hopelessly confused prostitute, wonderfully played by Allison Tolman.
Yet, as cruel as the landscape and violence are, the film isn’t a downer. Reilly’s Eli is the heart of the film, and we feel gratified when he finds what it is he was searching for. Reilly makes us believe in this hapless outlaw, despite his addiction to killing. And he’s good at it, too; the equal of his brother.
The role helps Reilly overcome the handicap of his screen persona. Even riding a horse in nineteenth century Oregon, he looks like a modern blue collar schlub. A stand-in for the cable guy. Conversely Phoenix, his co-star, doesn’t have that problem. His default persona is the eternal narcissistic bastard, enraged ever since the teacher gave him fewer animal crackers. You can drop his type into any place, in any era. But Reilly exudes a basic decency that seems inextricably connected to modern life. The story gives him the chance, for once, to showcase that appeal. In that sense, Eli’s loyalty, sensitivity, courage and devotion to family epitomize the modern hero.
But there’s another layer to it, one that might have had special appeal for the film’s director. The French are addicted to existential fables about criminals confronting their fate, such as Breathless and Melville’s Le Samouri. This story has the earmarks of a fable: two brothers, living as criminals for hire for a mysterious overlord named “the Commodore”, on a fantasy-like mission to steal the formula for making gold out of water. Audiard enhances the look of fantasy with Benoit Debie’s magnificent, spellbinding photography, where sunlight is muted so as to make the actors and background suffused in darkness, their shapes often barely visible.
Also suggestive of European filmmakers – especially Sergio Leone – are sudden, rather odd moments of self-reference. For instance, after the brothers have been riding hard for a long stretch, Eli remarks to Charlie that they’ve never ridden in a straight line for so long.
Speaking of straight lines, the story has an uncommon inevitability to it. It seems picaresque and random, at first, as does life. But when it’s over, it doesn’t seem so odd at all. Like the best of the Coen brothers, the strange characters take you along wherever their universe puts them. Nothing self-consciously “arty” to ruin the fun in its two fast-paced hours. It was just continuous entertainment.