This world is an abomination, says one character, perceptively
Back at the tail-end of 2018, here in rural
France where I live, the local traveling cinéma
arrived, as it sometimes did (pre-Covid), to show Les Frères Sisters in the village hall. I decided to go, though I
don’t care much for Westerns dubbed into French. It was pretty well a disaster.
Hard chairs, a hugely overheated hall, endless pre-movie advertisements, and
finally, about an hour after the scheduled start time, a different movie than the one announced, real
junk that asked us to believe that it was the women of Paris who marched out to
Versailles to bring Louis XVI back to the capital. I walked out.
Then I saw that The Sisters Brothers was on OCS, one of those Netflix-style streaming
services I get, but it was again only in French. For goodness sake! Offer it in
French in France by all means, but why not the choice of language? Too mean,
OCS? Too lazy? Something to do with the rights? Whatever the reason, doh.
Of course the French Les Frères Sisters completely loses the quirkiness and appeal of
the original title. To be fair, Les Frères Sœurs
wouldn’t really have done, so how do you translate that? But French
translations of titles are notoriously bad.
Anyway, I finally bought the DVD.
The picture is based on the 2011 novel of the
same title by Canadian writer Patrick DeWitt, the movie rights for which were
optioned by star/producer John C Reilly. Reilly had previously appeared in Les Cowboys (2015), a French sort-of Western
directed by Thomas Bidegain, a frequent collaborator of the director chosen for
Sisters, Jacques Audiard. Bidegain helped
Audiard adapt the novel for the screen.
Reilly played the elder brother Eli Sisters
and Joaquin Phoenix was cast as brother Charlie. Actually, they had something in
common: both Reilly and Phoenix had played Johnny Cash.
Oregon, 1851. The movie opens with shots in
the dark as the brothers, who are hired killers, murder people, so many they
can’t be bothered to count them properly, and leave horses in a burning barn.
So right away the ‘heroes’ are clearly horrible men. It isn’t easy to make
bounty hunters and paid assassins sympathetic. Charlie is especially
He is also, despite being the younger brother,
clearly the ‘lead’. Eli is pretty well only a sidekick, but not happy about it.
Only Charlie gets to meet with their employer, the Commodore (Rutger Hauer, who
has an easy ride of it because he has no lines to learn). Eli is not deemed
The siblings in fact bicker most of the time,
and gradually their backstory emerges. We learn that Charlie killed their
abusive father but Eli always feels that he should have done it. Charlie thinks
that the brothers inherited the skills they have in their trade of murder from
their violent daddy. At any rate they drift around the West casually killing
The Commodore sends them after a man named
Warm (Riz Ahmed) who has invented some chemical process for raising gold from Californian
river beds, so he commissions the Sisters to extract the details of the process
by torture, then kill the man. The Commodore also orders another employee,
John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), a journal-keeping detective, to track Warm down
so that the Sisters can come and kill him. But Warm has a talent for winning
people round to his side, and first Morris, then the Sisters find themselves as
partners. This prompts the Commodore to send out yet more assassins.
Some interest comes from the gradual change
that comes about in the brothers’ relationship. Gradually, Charlie’s dominance
and authority fade and Eli assumes command of the duo and takes the initiative.
There are explosive gunfights, more than once
in the dark, and the chemical process works but with disastrous results.
Finally, the brothers decide that the only way to get clear now is to kill the
Commodore, so they return north to do that, but a surprise awaits them.
The ending is curiously bucolic and sweet,
with embraces in a Fordian doorway. ‘Curiously’ considering the raw violence and
brutish nature of the life they have led. At one point Warm says, “What we need
to do is to put an end to all this barbarity. Put an end to all this violence.”
But there’s little chance of that.
The picture was shot in France, Romania and
good old Almeria, and is visually fine.
It got some good reviews and IMDb tells us
that it earned a standing ovation at the 2018 Venice International Film
Festival, and director Jacques Audiard won the Silver Lion for Best Director. Glenn
Kenny on rogerebert.com said of Reilly, “Give the man his Oscar already”, while
Tomris Laffly wrote, “Call it
a revisionist or an absurdist Western if you will, but Audiard’s film feels
both refreshingly new … and nostalgically familiar.” Manohla
Dargis in The New York Times said, “Despite Mr. Audiard’s embrace of contemporary norms that would have been
out of place in a Wayne western — the amusingly deployed coarse language, the
shots to the head and sprays of blood — he isn’t attempting to rewrite genre in
The Sisters Brothers, which is one of
this movie’s virtues, along with its terrific actors and his sensitive
direction of them.”
It is in fact quite a bit better than some of the Eurowesterns we have been reviewing lately.
But it was not a box-office hit, grossing $7m on
its $38m budget. Probably because of the failed rural French showings.