The Sisters Brothers

October, 2018, Comedy

Writer/director Jacques Audiard,  the gimlet-eyed observer of urban moral decay (A Prophet) and brutal interpersonal relationships (Rust & Bone) takes a vacation from cinematic intensity in this shaggy-dog Western  about a pair of siblings who make their living as bounty hunters in the post Civil War era of the American West.The director and his trio of stars (John C. Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix and Jake Gyllenhaal) turn the genre upside down and inside out before delivering a softly sweet denouement. How you react to this genre inversion depends on whether or not you’re in love with what Hollywood derisively calls “oaters”.

 O’Reilly and Phoenix play gunfighters Eli & Charlie with an unusual last name. They’re really hired killers working on a hit list supplied by The Commodore,  a wealthy king pin who dispatches the brothers as lethal debt collectors. Their assignments take Eli and Charlie on rambling odysseys across the Southwest, slaying foes - and the occasional misplaced innocent. When their assignments prove unsuccessful, they’re forced to trail after John Morris, a soft-spoken and gentlemanly private detective The Commodore employs when he feels the brothers lack the requisite intelligence required by their task. 

 Unfortunately, Charlie is a psychotic alcoholic and enamored of games of chance, which make Eli’s job as baby-sitter for his sibling much more difficult. Eli is ying to Charlie’s yang, a softhearted thug in a cruel profession with the physique of a Pillsbury Dough Boy and sufficient common sense to rescue Charlie from various sidetracks fueled by his violent behavior.

Given those parameters, it’s easy to see why the boys do a lot but accomplish very little.

Detective Morris on the other hand is the epitome of a private eye, possessing  an identifiable and not unattractive set of the personal neurosis contemporary fiction requires of that craft. He’s simultaneously buttoned up while getting down to business, doing his job with a minimal amount of confrontation. But he’s swept along by the irrational exuberance of Charlie’s schemes and Eli’s dogged devotion to his sibling,. When the three of them run across the chance to prospect for gold rather than continuing to eliminate The Commodore’s deadbeats, their assignments on his behalf take Morris in one direction while the brothers go home to their Mom for peace, quiet and loving familial attention,

O’Reilly, one of the great comedic actors of his generation, provides another superbly etched portrait as a guy with a doughy physique and the sincere  desire protect to Charlie from himself. His Eli has a sleepy-eyed veniality combined with sufficient compassion to make his chosen profession poorly chosen.  The role was tailored to O”Reilly’s screen persona and he makes the most of it. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of Phoenix; he’s famous for bringing a wide assortment of malcontents to the screen, but his performance here seems almost painfully contrived, frequently slipping into simple-minded excess. It’s Gyllenhaal who steals the movie; in a charmingly understated role, his depiction of a 19th century detective burdened with 21st century neurosis becomes the writer/director’s most fully realized character.

The Sisters Brothers has few of the slick production values found in the more heroic contemporary entries in the genre. Instead, it chooses to visually depict an era of greed, violence and slovenliness in a more historically accurate manner. But its abrupt swerve into sentimentality at the end suggests Audiard fatally lost his cynical nerve in the final reel.  

 The Verdict? A tour of The Old West infused with a confusing Euro-fixated mixture of condescension and affection.    

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