The Sisters Brothers
In the 1890s, Prescott Ford Jernegan and Charles Fisher defrauded hundreds of investors in a scheme to extract gold from seawater in the Klondike estuary. A character in The Sisters Brothers makes similar claims, but don’t fall for them. There’s no gold here – barely even a glimmer.
Charlie and Eli Sisters (Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly) are the brothers mentioned in that irritating mouthful of a title: a pair of hitmen sent out by their boss, “the Commodore” to chase down Warm, a fugitive chemist (Riz Ahmed) heading west with his utopian ideals and a gold-detecting formula, and Morris, a detective who has joined forces with him (Jake Gyllenhaal). Further assassins are on their tail, sent both by the Commodore and others, and when brothers switch sides, pan some gold, accidentally kill everyone and have to leave, they must then fight their way back through them. It is a standard picaresque structure which typically relies on two things: the quality (comic or dramatic) of the individual episodes and a natural steady increase in tension, as the baddies get badder and the goodies more bloodied. Sam Peckinpah did it well in Alfredo Garcia and one of his lead characters was a severed head. Audiard has four excellent actors, but even they cannot enliven what turns out to be an aimless two-hour plod.
Part of the problem seems to be distraction. The Sisters Brothers wants to be a comedy, but the dialogue lacks sparkle, tending mopey and sentimental – a pity, given that Patrick DeWitt, who wrote the original novel, is renowned for his repartee. Neither are the episodes convincingly exciting; the rather humdrum gunfights are mostly engaged in with faceless groups of men who wear squirrels on their heads and fall out of trees. More needless self-distraction is gained from sets and establishing shots, which seem bent on proving, in an annoying, nudgy sort of way, how much research the production team did: look, a toothbrush, look, a pre-fabricated saloon!
If the plot is unsure what to do, it is equally unsure what to say. The Western is so often presented as a dead genre that every time a new one is made (and that’s over 136 times so far this decade, an awful lot of movement for a corpse) it seems expected to present a new take. I think we would have been happy for Audiard just to have made a good Western, but, unfortunately, he appears to have fallen into the trap of stumbling around trying to have a point, and ending up having none. There’s a bit of environmentalism in there, a bit of utopianism, but it is merely signposted, never explored; there’s never enough to get your teeth into. Nobody is walking out of the cinema discussing how that one shot of a dead fish made them feel about the industrial despoliation of American wildernesses. Which I would be more than happy with, except that you feel that’s what the film wants you to be doing.
The characters are similarly overproved and underbaked. Audiard continues to explore his pet obsession with fraternal relations, here in the affection of gentle, restrained Eli, who wants to settle down, for drunk, psychopathic Charlie, who likes killing people. Much of their dialogue revolves around demonstrating this relationship, but it turns out to have little importance in the general scheme of things, while attempts to create actual depth waver between bland, predictable flashbacks (to the drunken father whom Charlie murders) and squidgy sentimentalism: of which the film’s final scene, a return to Home and Mother, is the moist pinnacle.
If it is not character that drives this plot, what is it? It turns out to be largely stupidity. Indeed, the film starts out showing the brothers rather incompetently getting their horses killed. The gold formula is just silly. Its clear impossibility, in a film that seemed to pride itself on realism, made me think all along that Riz Ahmed’s character was engaged in an elaborate hoax . But no, it turns out to work, forcing the interpretation of this section as the philosophical core of the film, the four men living in primitive harmony in a kind of flimsy utopia. As usual it is over-signalled and underdeveloped, feeling more like a vestigial tail poking out from the original book. At least it is mercifully short: for, reaching peak moron, Charlie manages to empty corrosive gold-formula all over Warm, Morris and his shooting hand, killing them and maiming himself, and for no apparent reason other than that he likes shiny things. How the hell have these brothers, allegedly the best assassins in the West, survived this long?
Audiard claims to want to represent the marginalised – two uneducated, unloved, angry men from a poor background – in a film that has frequently been billed as “revisionist”. However, though they would lack status in real life, these men are hardly underrepresented in the Western genre, where they form a large proportion of its principal characters – Sergio Leone’s brilliant and ugly Tuco, for example, in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. And so, rather than feeling surprised by Charlie and Eli, all we really feel is a vague sense of having seen it all before. The gunfights, brothels, barroom scenes are repetitions, not reimaginings, of genre classics, while even the violence feels tame and tired, a few snaps, crackles and pops and some cookie-cutter bone-sawing. At the same time, the decision to have no women at all in leading roles (women did apparently make up half the production crew) rather puts the lie to the director’s stated desire for better representation. There is certainly a place for films about isolated, angry masculinity: but ignoring any hint of an idea that women may be affected by these men’s actions ought, really, to be inconceivable.