Friday 12 April 2019

The Sisters Brothers (Jacques Audiard, 2018)

It can often be rather worrying when an established director makes a film in a foreign language for the first time, but the stakes seem especially high when the filmmaker in question is arguably the greatest director working today.  It's fair to say that Jacques Audiard's stunning run from Read My Lips through Dheepan has cemented his place as one of the true greats - a director who rarely seems to put a foot out of place.  Audiard had much to risk by stepping out of his comfort zone to make a film in English; his prior work was always highly nuanced, and filmmakers working in another tongue can often pass over the subtleties of that language.  Happily - and possibly surprisingly - Audiard comes up trumps with The Sisters Brothers, a terrific western that can proudly sit alongside his other works such as Rust and Bone and A Prophet.  The film's quality is evident from the off, and any doubts we may have had are quickly extinguished.

Set in the unforgiving Oregon of the 1850s, the film follows hitmen brothers Charlie and Eli (Joaquin Phoenix, John C. Reilly) as they carry out the bidding of a wealthy Commodore (Rutger Hauer).  As gunfighters, the brothers prove to be as good as anyone around, and even when the pair are outnumbered, they're never outgunned.  Eli is the more sensitive of the two, while Charlie regularly drowns his own demons in alcohol, which often leaves him in no condition to ride - although it seems that little can blunt his fighting skills.  The Commodore sends the two to hunt down Warm (Riz Ahmed), a timid and sickly-looking gent on his way to California with the Gold Rush.  Taking no chances, the Commodore has also hired Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), a private detective who locates and befriends Warm; Morris grows uneasy at the thought of the grisly end which awaits Warm when the Sisters catch up him, and he and the would-be prospector set out for California together.  With this complication in place, the Sisters find themselves on the trail of both Warm and Morris.

When the two parties eventually come face to face, Audiard brilliantly wrong-foots us and the story takes an unexpected turn.  To detail it here would be to say a little too much, but suffice to say that Warm has been working on a formula for locating gold, and this becomes central to the fates of all four men.  This development comes as part of a whole which feels at once fresh and familiar; Audiard and his trusted co-writer Thomas Bidegain, not for the first time, have created a world in which there's a perfect balance of light and shade.  It is fair to say that the way you view each of the four main characters will change - probably more than once - over the course of the film's running time.  All of this is captured magnificently by the great Belgian cinematographer Benoit Debîe, who recently lensed Gaspar Noé's Climax; Debie makes a major contribution when it comes to putting us in the thick of lawless, dusty 19th century America (although the film was actually shot in Spain).  There are few cinematographers whose work is worth viewing regardless of the director they're teamed with, but Debie's sterling efforts are always worth seeking out; all the better when he links up with the likes of Noé and Audiard.

The Sisters Brothers is adapted from a novel by Canadian author Patrick deWitt, who wrote the screenplay for Terri, which coincidentally also starred John C. Reilly - who's on double duty for The Sisters Brothers, with the actor also taking on the role of producer (alongside Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, no less).  You can see the appeal of the story to Audiard: criminals feature prominently in all of his films (bar A Self-Made Hero), and the same concerns are prevalent here - even if the milieu marks new territory for the director.  A recurrent theme in Audiard's work - of the man who tries to turn away from a life of crime - is also present in The Sisters Brothers.  So, the essence of the film actually isn't so different from what we have come to expect from Jacques Audiard, even if the packaging is unfamiliar.  What is noticeably different this time around is that Audiard pushes more characters to the forefront; usually, his films focus almost exclusively on one or two people, but here he manages to spread the load among the four main characters and, remarkably, they are all equally fascinating.  As such, it's something of an ensemble piece, one which features a quartet of actors on top form.  Whether Audiard ventures into English-language filmmaking again remains to be seen, but what isn't in any doubt is that The Sisters Brothers is a must-see film of tremendous quality.

Darren Arnold

Images: UniFrance