THE SISTERS BROTHERS, alternately compelling and off-putting, visually striking, tonally undecided, this oddball western from 2018 is often called a ‘black comedy’, but if so, it’s purty danged dark, since the brothers in question are a pair of scruffy killers, who, on their way to partial spiritual renewal, are decidedly nonchalant about decimating a good deal of the population of 1851 Oregon and California. Patrick deWitt’s picaresque 2011 novel garnered a good deal of praise. Among those impressed was one of our favorite character creators, John C. Reilly, who bought the rights for his production company. Direction was entrusted to Jacques Audiard, who co-wrote the screenplay with Thomas Bidegain.
Settlement time in Oregon. Gold Rush Days in California. Plying their murderous assassin ways for ‘The Commodore’, the Sisters brothers are sullen, guarded ‘Eli’ (Reilly) and brazen lout ‘Charlie’ (Joaquin Phoenix). Genteel detective/bounty hunter ‘John Morris’ (Jake Gyllenhaal) is supposed to find chemist ‘Hermann Warm’ (Riz Ahmed) and turn him over to the brothers, who’ll deliver him to The Commodore in Portland, and if they have to kill whoever gets in their way, well, that’s just what they do for a livin’. Then the gentle and intelligent Warm befriends the thoughtful, intrigued Morris; they head south to rambunctious San Francisco and the beckoning gold fields. The brothers pursue, and things change—better & worse—for everyone involved.
With those actors, count on solid performances, and the film boasts some striking visuals, especially in the sequences set at night. It was the first English-language feature for French director Audiard, and his genre-tentative touch mixes with the scripts tendency to get a wee too fancy at times, with passages of overly expository dialogue. For reasons possibly budgetary, Oregon and California locales were substituted by landscapes in Romania, Spain and France. Unsurprisingly, it feels European. The H-bomb use of f-bombs may please those who believed the series Deadwood was linguistically accurate, but I think—as someone who casually uses said F-dude whenever I check the news or try to write a review—it just shows lazy pandering to modern crudity-worn sensibilities. Where the hell’s a good “goddam” when you need one’a the bastards in a sonufabitchin’ shootout?
Cuss count and tone tussles to the side, the good work from engaging actors makes up for a lot, the blazing gunfights have real pizzazz, and the sound effects crew deserves special credit—f’n’a, boys. Strange film might likely look better upon revisit: it happens. Deal.
Critics were mostly impressed, but with a cost factor of $38,000,000 it was money-bound for boot hill, with just $13,143,000 grossed worldwide, less than a quarter of that in the States, where it died, gutshot, at 174th place.
The okay music score is from Alan Selvestri, the fine cinematography is from the eye of Benoit Debie. An unrecognizable Carol Kane shows up as the brothers mother, and Rutger Hauer passes by as ‘The Commodore’. With Rebecca Root and Allison Tolman. 121 minutes.