In the same scheme in which Jacques Audiard’s Palm d’Or-winning migrant drama Dheepan metamorphizes into a hazy and violent stupor in it’s the final moments, his first foray into the western genre does something similar but this time in reverse. From a crude and violent yarn, The Sisters Brothers’ gradually recedes from its western trappings to an almost miraculous state of grace in its second half, eventually ending on an image of perfect serenity.
Audiard seems very fascinated by the self-help journey undertaken in Canadian-born author Patrick deWitt’s atypical western The Sisters Brothers. In it, the violence is made deliberately underwhelming, its journey meandering and astray by design and the book’s caricatures afflicted with a stark crisis of identity. The Sisters Brothers however doesn’t merely intend to revise the western genre as purposely distort it. The effect is intriguing if imprecise. Audiard’s blatant cheapening of The Sisters Brothers “genre” elements could achieve their intended effect if his convictions were better integrated into the story. Rather, the film is just part darkly funny and part glumly self-serious. It rejects its genre foundations but offers a barely legible alternative.
The opening of Sisters Brothers effectually sets an appropriately atypical mood—a gunfight in the dead of night in which the only thing visible are gun sparks flashing in the High Plains. A distancing effect that removes suspense and thrills from the scene and offers rather the black moral void the two brothers thrive in. Placing the viewer as the remote observer was a shrewd Brechtian move on Audiard’s part, rather than place the audience in the centre of the action he relegates it to a safe, cold distance. He breaks the distance from the characters as the film carries on, soon getting to a point of uncomfortable closeness.
Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly are wisely paired as the film’s titular bounty hunting brothers. Both play their character types well (if not too well), Phoenix as Charlie is crude and aggressive, Reilly as Eli is dopey and kind-hearted. Their journey takes them from the Oregon High Plains to California’s gold-laden Sierra Nevada where their powerful employer, the unseen and unnamed “Commodore”, assigns them. There they hope to find a chemist named Hermann Warm (Riz Ahmed) who has supposedly developed a compound that, when poured in, unveils gold hiding in riverbeds. Already hot on his trail is the well-spoken detective John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), already luring the chemist into his good graces.
The decidedly unexciting setup of deWitt’s novel is only further disenchanted by Audiard’s lumbered almost dispassionate approach to it. Intercutting between between Morris and Warm’s fledgling partnership and the Sisters tumultuous brotherly journey, Audiard’s normally electrified rhythm and pace are muted by ponderous character work and protracted dialogue sequences that provide neither actorly showcases or truly interesting dynamics between characters. However, a tremendous discovery is made when Audiard’s merges the path of his four principle characters and in an extend sequence finds a freeness in ensemble casting, allowing breathing space, free association and, alas, drama that allows emotions and feelings to flourish the thin material.
All the formal bravado aside, The Sisters Brothers is ultimately a western about the unspoken yet unconditional love between two brothers. Audiard is given the kind of material made to deepen archetypes and clichés—an admirable intent—but every attempt for Audiard to deepen his western ends up working against the genre’s every natural impulse and inclination. This is not to say that “deep”, reflective works of art cannot exist in the sphere of high-concept or genre-based works. Jacques Audiard seems to have forgotten how most genre films considered great works of arts are as much a result of formal precision and personal expression as they are fetishism and gratification. Audiard’s fatal error in The Sisters Brothers is the misguided notion that fetishism and gratification have no place in “art”—something disproved by the formal masters Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks. Without the innate exhilaration deeply-rooted to the western, The Sisters Brothers remains a lopsided example of western revisionist.