The Sisters Brothers (Les frères Sisters, France-Belgium-Spain-Romania-US 2018)

The Sisters Brothers has been declared to have ‘bombed’ in the US because box office takings have been only a fraction of what might have been spent by American independent distributor Annapurna on screening rights. The box office results have been better in Europe. But I suspect in a few years time the film will start to receive a lot more interest from cinephiles. I like and admire Jacques Audiard’s work and that admiration is carried over to this his first English language film. But Audiard is not the only auteur involved. John C. Reilly bought the rights to the novel by Patrick DeWitt close to its publication date in 2011 and he is credited as one of the producers. The adaptation was by Audiard and Thomas Bidegain who collaborated with Audiard on his previous three films and who directed John C. Reilly in Les cowboys (France 2015).

The ‘Sisters Brothers’ are Eli (John C. Reilly) and Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix), a pair of hired guns who work as assassins for ‘The Commodore’ (Rutger Hauer) in Oregon Territory in 1851. This is the time of the Gold Rush in California and finds were made near Jacksonville in Oregon Territory. The Brothers are given the task of finding and assassinating Hermann Warm (Riz Ahmed) who is being followed by a detective also employed by The Commodore, John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal). The two brothers are quite different. Charlie is the younger, but he acts as the leader and is much more aggressive. Eli is more philosophical and reflective – although he still kills efficiently when he needs to. The journey they take south towards California and what happens when they find Morris and Warm gives the narrative plenty of time to fill out the characters.

The brothers cut each others’ hair.

My feeling about the film, which I very much enjoyed, is that it resembles several other ‘literary’ Westerns such as The Missouri Breaks (US 1976) from the novel by Thomas McGuane or, more recently, The Homesman (France-US 2014) from the novel by Glendon Swarthout. Both these films were also relatively big-budget films that flopped and both had ‘name’ directors and stars, Arthur Penn with Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando for the first and Tommy Lee Jones as both director and star (with Hilary Swank) in the second. The Homesman is also an ‘international production set in the same time period as The Sisters Brothers.

The Sisters Brothers

Morris treads carefully in the new towns thrown up quickly

There is a featured review of The Sisters Brothers by Nick Pinkerton in Sight and Sound (May 2019) in which he refers to the film as having an unusual setting in the pre-Civil War era. The review makes some interesting points but I think that Pinkerton hasn’t seen enough Westerns – there are enough pre-1861 Westerns to form a separate classification and the pre-war period includes both the Gold Rush and the migrations via wagon trains to Oregon before the coming of the transcontinental railroads. The opening up of Oregon was remarkably fast-paced over the first few decades of the 19th century, moving from a territory of fur trappers and the Hudson’s Bay company through British and American claims to sovereignty and the subsequent formation of the ‘Oregon Territory’ in 1848 south of the 49th Parallel and admission as a new state of the Union in 1859. There were periods of lawlessness as jurisdictions changed and the pace of development is neatly represented by the surprise for both the educated Morris and Eli when they find themselves both brushing their teeth with toothbrushes and tooth powder. But this is a very male early Oregon community. Women are usually bar girls. Wives and mothers are not very visible.

The Sisters Brothers

Eli looks after his horse – one of several interesting details of travel in the narrative

One of the criticisms of the film is the dialogue which includes some modern speech which seems anachronistic. But it also includes some literary language, especially when Morris is writing his diary. Eli too uses some formal language which Charlie derides, but the most articulate character is Warm, who has big plans, first for gold extraction and then for a new utopian society he wants to set up in Texas. There was a real attempt by democratic socialists from France, Belgium and Switzerland to set up a community known as ‘La Réunion’ in Dallas County in 1855 based on the ideas of Charles Fourier. (Fourier called the building in which a small community might live a phalanstère.) The American writer Henry David Thoreau is also mentioned in the script, although as Pinkerton points out Thoreau’s best known work, Walden, was not published until 1854. However, he had published earlier papers and the script suggests that Warm is not just formally educated like Morris, but also much more aware of new ideas. I did notice the language ‘mix’ and I’m still not quite sure how to read it – but I don’t see it as a ‘mistake’.

Against this minutiae of American life, the film offers us the landscapes of Spain and Romania, because this is very much a European production from Why Not Productions in France as the lead company. It includes scenes shot in Almería in Andalusia (like all the classic European Westerns) as well as mountain scenes in Navarre and Aragon and other landscapes and studio sets in Romania. There is a tradition of pitting history against myth in European Westerns and this film continues that process. This doesn’t make The Sisters Brothers a ‘realist film’, but it does suggest an intelligence ‘playing’ with Western conventions and historical discourses. The problem is that audience expectations are perhaps for clearer narrative drives and for a rousing climax and resolution (see this typical US review). I’m not in the spoilers game, but there is a relatively downbeat ending. There are at least three big shootouts but the emphasis is on the characters. I’m not sure that the balance between ‘action’ and ‘talk’ is actually that different from the majority of Western films. It’s more a case of what the ‘talk’ is about. I found the talk very interesting and enjoyable and I’d be happy to watch the film again.

Herrmann Warm (Riz Ahmed) and John Morris (Jake Gyllenaal)

The casting of Riz Ahmed, a fine actor, worked for me. I was reminded of another very good and unusual Western, The Ballad of Little Jo (1993) written and directed by Maggie Greenwald. Set in roughly the same mid-19th century period and again in a mining camp, the central character, a woman trying to ‘pass’ as a man, meets an Englishman played by Ian McKellan sporting his own ‘real’ Lancashire accent. The film also features the Chinese migrant community. Another British connection is to Michael Winterbottom’s wonderful Thomas Hardy adaptation (of The Mayor of Casterbridge) The Claim (UK-Canada 2000). Again associated with the ‘mining Western’ this is set slightly later in the 1860s when the railroad is coming, but the ‘back story’ is the 1849 Gold Rush. This film too has its migrant characters. I think I need to watch both these other films again! Riz Ahmed’s character is, I think, meant to be a European migrant and his character’s name suggests German/Belgian/Dutch? (But his middle name ‘Kermit’ seems to be American- and possibly anachronistic).

We watched the film on the big screen in Pictureville at the Museum in Bradford. I thought Alexandre Desplat’s score worked well and Benoît Debie’s cinematography is equally impressive. All the performances are good but it’s clear that John C. Reilly is the most invested in the project he started. Nick didn’t like the film and perhaps he’ll add a comment as to why not. I’ve really enjoyed researching the film and if you like Westerns I’d say this is a ‘must see’ – unless the issues I’ve described above are ones you know will be a problem for you. The trailer below doesn’t give out as many spoilers as the usual Hollywood trailer, but I don’t remember anything like the song in it appearing in the film.

3 comments

  1. Geoff Lealand

    I saw this film recently, included in a French Film Festival programme—which was rather curious. I liked it but appreciate why it has had difficulty finding an audience. It reminded me a little of another recent Western: Slow West (2015), a directorial debut by John McClean and starring Michael Fassbender. It was a UK/NZ co-production and largely shot in the Central Otago region of New Zealand. Obviously, the West is a floating signifier.

    • Roy Stafford

      I did think about Slow West while I was watching the film. I thought that film might be in a similar period but I looked back at my own review and found that it’s meant to be later, though there does seem some confusion. I thought The Sisters Brothers was more ‘coherent’ as a narrative and that Spain/Romania looked more like the American West of my imagination. (I have some experience of Spanish and New Zealand landscapes but not of the Rockies – except from the air – so I guess that means that I’m comparing them to the Westerns I’ve seen). These comments don’t detract from my feeling that John Maclean showed real talent with Slow West. i’m surprised he hasn’t completed anything else since.

  2. nicklacey

    While admiring the filmmaking I didn’t find the characterisation convincing. I don’t think this was the acting, rather the relationship between the brothers was poorly scripted (haven’t read the original). All that’s wrong for me is in the trailer, which emphasised comedic elements that I didn’t think fitted in the film. ‘Blazing Saddles’ shows the western can be funny but I was alienated by the attempts at humour in this.

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