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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This completed my trio of films from the ‘End of Innocence’ strand of archive Hollywood films at the festival. Allan Hunter had his largest and most appreciative audience yet for his introduction. He made a strong argument that Midnight Cowboy marked a fundamental change in Hollywood, a ‘passing of the baton’ from one generation to another – at least in terms of stars. He reminded us that this was the first ‘X’ film to win Best Picture Oscar and he told us an anecdote about how Jon Voight, backstage at the Oscars to collect the Best Director Oscar on behalf of John Schlesinger, was congratulated by Fred Astaire. I’m amazed that the film still had an ’18’ certificate in the UK when the bbfc certified the most recent video copy in 2007. I don’t really understand why it was an ‘X’ in the first place. Hunter argued that Schlesinger was only half ‘out’ as gay at the time (but his next film Sunday, Bloody Sunday in 1971 features the bisexual young man played by Murray Head who is the lover of both Glenda Jackson and Peter Finch). Midnight Cowboy has a distinct homo-erotic subtext, but the original novel was more clearly the work of a gay writer. I’ve read that the issue in the US was the oral sex scene in the film. I guess we are more used to such scenes now but it must have been ‘shocking’ at the time.
If you haven’t seen Midnight Cowboy, the narrative sees a a young man from Texas dreaming of a better life in New York. It certainly has been a difficult life so far for Joe Buck (Jon Voight), currently washing dishes in a greasy spoon café. Having saved for new cowboy boots he sets out on a long-distance bus believing New York and ‘rich ladies’ in particular, are waiting for a handsome cowboy stud like Joe. Inevitably he is the naïve rube in the city and is quickly reduced to hustling – which leads him to meet Ritso or ‘Ratso’ (Dustin Hoffman). The pair become an odd couple who attempt to survive a New York winter and then to head for Florida and warmth with tragic results.
Allan Hunter’s definition of ‘New Hollywood’ is based on slightly different ideas than mine I think. Whereas both Alice’s Restaurant and Medium Cool were, in their different ways, offering something new and in the rest of the strand Easy Rider certainly shook up the industry, I think most of the other selections were mainstream films made in the classical manner. True, Voight and Hoffman, when they made Midnight Cowboy, were not yet Hollywood stars and Hunter told us that Schlesinger was able to film them on the street without turning heads. And in the sense that this was a film without established stars it was certainly a surprise that it won so many awards. I’m not arguing that it didn’t deserve them. It still comes across as a very well-made and enjoyable film and I was surprised how much I remembered from it. It also has the benefit of the Nilsson song ‘Everybody’s Talkin’ as part of a memorable soundtrack and the little bits of ‘business’, concocted by Hoffman in particular, still work. On the other hand, Schlesinger was already the director of four major UK films, one of which, Darling, won 3 Oscars in 1965. He would go to make four more major pictures in the 1970s but all were mainstream features. The film was also a literary adaptation of James Leo Herlihy’s novel which first appeared in 1965. Herlihy had also written plays and an earlier novel All Fall Down (1960) that became a 1962 film for John Frankenheimer. Herlihy, like Schlesinger was a man of the 1950s and 1960s and not part of the New Hollywood as such. His Wikipedia entry states that he attended Black Mountain College, where Arthur Penn had once studied and later he would appear as an actor in one of Penn’s late films, Four Friends 1981.
But does Midnight Cowboy fit the ‘End of Innocence’. I’m not convinced. Most of the attempts to categorise the changes in Hollywood in the 1950s and 1960s, as the studios declined and the brief interregnum when some offbeat and ‘counter-culture’ influenced films got into mainstream distribution in the 1970s, are problematic. There are no simple cut-off points or starting points. No single film marked the boundary. I would argue that Hollywood changed over a ten-year period from the mid sixties to the mid 70s. Hollywood shrank, most films got smaller. Directors became more important but then films got bigger again and they were sold to audiences more efficiently again. Perhaps the only boundaries are those associated with the so-called ‘Movie Brats’. Francis Ford Coppola made his first mainstream feature You’re a Big Boy Now in 1966 and Stephen Spielberg directed Jaws, one of the first films to have a major national marketing campaign and a wide release building across the summer in 1975. Midnight Cowboy is just one of a number of enjoyable and interesting films that came out in that ten-year period. It could also be approached as a ‘buddy movie’, a film about two men which became a genre staple around this time
The print we watched was a DCP from Park Circus. GFT1 is listed as 2K digital projection.
I booked to see this film simply because it seemed the best choice in the particular slot in the festival programme. I’m not sure why Glasgow selected the film which was released widely in the UK just three days after its two festival screenings. Perhaps it was a purely commercial decision – it was a sell-out on the night for a screening that must have been a première (I don’t tend to notice these things). I wonder if the distributors Fox Searchlight lost faith in the film and avoided a big London opening? Anyway, there was a festival flavour to the screening with the presence of director James Kent and one of the producers (Jack Arbuthnot I think, but apologies because I missed his name) and the Q&A that followed was enjoyable and interesting in terms of audience feedback.
The narrative explores a period of a few months from October 1946 during the British military mission in Hamburg, a city almost totally destroyed by Allied bombing earlier in the war. Colonel Lewis Morgan (Jason Clarke) is in charge of the clear-up in the city with the unearthing of corpses buried in the rubble and small groups of Nazis still creating disorder and launching attacks on British personnel. Rachael Morgan (Keira Knightley) arrives to join her husband and the couple are assigned a requisitioned country house on the outskirts which is undamaged. The house belongs to an architect, Stefan Lubert (Alexander Skarsgård), who is a widower with a teenage daughter, Freda. The Luberts and the servants are to stay on but at first Rachael finds it difficult to have them in the house and they retreat to rooms in the attic spaces. We sense that a form of romantic melodrama is about to play out since Lewis is overworked and out much of the time while Rachael has time on her hands to think about the loss of her son two or three years earlier in a bombing raid. Herr Lubert lost his wife during the firestorm created by British incendiaries around the same time.
The situation is based on the real events experienced by the novelist Rhidian Brook’s grandparents. There is an interesting account of this history on the BBC website. A script by Brook was originally commissioned by Scott Free (Ridley Scott, who is credited as a producer on the film, was a 10 year-old with his parents in Hamburg a year later) which Brook then turned into a novel. The film took shape after the novel’s publication and two new writers were brought in to develop the romance and in doing so to move further away from the ‘real’ events. Much of the film was shot in the Czech Republic and the film is very much a European co-production with important German involvement through producer Malte Grunert.
Since the film has now been given a wide release in the UK, it has been widely reviewed and I’m not going to use my space here to repeat many of the comments. Most reviewers come to the same conclusion – that despite the potential of the situation and the characters’ interaction, the film doesn’t really generate the emotion that might be expected. I’m afraid I have to agree. The word that kept coming into my head when watching it was ‘bloodless’ which seems strange for a drama set in the rubble, but there you are. This doesn’t mean it’s a ‘bad film’. It’s well-made, possibly too well-made with the costumes and the decor of the house sometimes overwhelming the tensions of the living arrangements. The three leads all give good performances and I was impressed by Jason Clarke in particular. I kept wondering where I’d seen him before (he has made several big budget American films) and it wasn’t until later that I realised it was in Rabbit-Proof Fence (Australia 2002). Few would recognise him as coming from Queensland in this role.
Glasgow Film Festival programmed the film as part of the ‘Local Heroes’ strand – celebrating Scottish contributions to cinema. James Kent told us that he had family connections in Paisley and was glad to be in Glasgow, but I presume that the only Scottish contribution came via fourth-billed Martin Compston who plays an intelligence officer, a hard and hard-drinking man. Not Compston’s finest moment I feel. The character didn’t work for me and I’m usually a big admirer.
The Q&A that followed was in some ways more interesting for me that the film itself. On the whole, the people who stayed for the session (the majority of the audience, I think) appeared to have enjoyed themselves. A couple of Germans in the audience commented favourably on the representation of Germans in the film and others said how interesting it was to focus on this period. It’s easy to forget that for most people under 60(?) this is not a history that will be familiar. One questioner asked about the balance between the romance and the historical/political back story. James Kent admitted that the production team had discussed this and opted for the romance. The questioner said they would have liked more ‘history’. Kent replied that some audiences might be ‘bored’ by the history. So there we have it. Actually, a bit more history might have created a bit more drama. As it is the history sub-plot (involving the daughter and a young Nazi ‘guerilla’) doesn’t quite work as well as it might. This was an educated audience and someone mentioned Lore (Germany-Australia-UK 2012) as a film set in the same period. Kent agreed and suggested Land of Mine (Denmark-Germany 2015) on which Malte Grunert was a producer. I refrained from asking whether the production team had looked at German ‘rubble films’ (Trümmerfilme) both from the late 1940s and at various times since. These were mostly set in Berlin, I think, but they might have informed a film set in Hamburg.
I think James Kent was probably considered a ‘safe’ choice to direct the film and in the sense that he has made several major TV films and series as well as the adaptation of Vera Brittain’s Testament to Youth in 2014, that’s probably a reasonable judgement by Fox Searchlight in funding the film. As one of the American reviews suggests, the film will work well on rainy afternoons as a TV or cinema matinée, but it could have been much more. On the other hand, audiences may prove that to be too conservative a view and if the film introduces just a little history alongside the costumes and the tasteful sex scenes that might be a good thing.
Burning is the first high-profile foreign language film release in the UK this year (it arrives with 27 international festival awards including the Critics Prize at Cannes). It opened on just 34 screens and so I had to make a 2 hour train trip to Sheffield to see it. Picturehouses in Bradford haven’t, as far as I’m aware, shown any foreign language films yet this year. Fortunately for me, not only was Burning a riveting watch but I could stay on and see one of the films touring under the Japan Foundation banner later in the day. Well done Showroom for putting these on.
I tried to avoid reading about Burning before the screening. All I knew was that it was loosely based on a story by Haruki Murakami. I had noted and then forgotten that director Lee Chang-dong was responsible for the fabulous film Poetry that I greatly enjoyed in 2011. The new film focuses on three central characters. Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in) is a young man in his twenties doing casual work when he meets Hae-mi (Jun Jong-seo) who claims she was at school with him ten years ago. She’s since had plastic surgery she tells him. “I’m pretty now. You once called me ugly.” The pair appear to bond immediately but Hae-mi is about to go on an adventure holiday in Africa. She asks Jong-su to look after her cat and he complies diligently. But when Hae-mi returns she is accompanied by a wealthy man she met in Nairobi, ‘Ben’ (Steven Yuen), a few years older. The trio begin an uncomfortable relationship. I won’t detail any more plot spoilers because the narrative transforms slowly into a form of mystery thriller in its second half.
Jong-su is the central character and he is in every scene so he is effectively the narrator. Perhaps unsurprisingly we learn that at college he studied creative writing and that he wants to write a novel – but as yet he doesn’t know what the story will be. His family is ‘fragmented’. His mother left home many years ago and his father has ‘anger issues’ and is about to be convicted of assault. His sister has also gone so Jong-su is on his own in the farmhouse on the outskirts of Paju City some 90 minutes north of Seoul and close to the border with North Korea. Although I haven’t read the Murakami short story, I did recognise something of the tone of his writing and the sense of loneliness and alienation. Murakami is also well-known for his interest in Western literature and the relationship between Jong-su and Ben is reminiscent of Patricia Highsmith with Ben as a ‘Tom Ripley’ character (though in Highsmith, Ripley tends to be the central character). When Ben asks Jong-su which writer he admires, he replies William Faulkner, which doesn’t augur well.
Jong-su also tells Hae-mi that Ben and his wealthy friends are ‘Gatsbys’. This comment points to an analytical subtext. We don’t know how Ben earns the money which pays for his swish apartment in Seoul and his Porsche. The actor Steven Yuen is Korean-American and seen to great effect in Sorry to Bother You (US 2018) and various US TV series. One reviewer suggests that Yuen speaks ‘perfect’ Korean and no doubt for local audiences there are minor details like this that make the characters much richer symbols. At one point Jong-su visits a large Catholic church. I couldn’t work out why but this is another example of a clue about a character’s background which might only be apparent to a Korean audience. Jong-su is no mug, but his demeanour suggests that he is seemingly not ‘with it’. With his mouth hanging open and a bemused/bewildered look at times, he openly states that the world is a mystery to him, but this masks his intelligence and determination. According to Wikipedia, Yoo Ah-in, the most experienced of the actors playing the leads, is something of a ‘youth icon’ in Korea. Jun Jong-seo gives an amazing performance as Hae-mi, especially since this is her first film role.
Burning is 148 minutes long. This is not unusual for South Korean films and I was fully engaged for the whole film – in fact, I was surprised when the film ended, I thought that there might be more. (Having said that, the ending is perfectly fine, I just wasn’t expecting it.) It does seem to be a problem for some American audiences as revealed in IMDb User comments. These call the film slow and boring. They couldn’t be more wrong. The narrative moves slowly but it does so with increasing mystery and tension. The cinematography by Hong Kyung-pyo is excellent, as you might expect from someone who has worked consistently with some of the best South Korean directors. The opening shot of the film is a close-up of the door (of a truck or a container) with just a glimpse of a view down the street on the right-hand side of the screen from where Jong-su appears. Now I think about it, it is an ironic ‘pre-echo’ of the last sequence in the film. I enjoyed the film’s score as well and I noted in the credits that it includes something from Miles Davis’ score for Louis Malle’s Ascenseur Pour L’Echafaud (Lift To The Scaffold, France 1958).
You might reasonably ask why the film is titled ‘Burning’. The Murakami story is titled ‘Barn Burning’ and at one point Ben tells Jong-su that he has a secret hobby that involves burning derelict greenhouses. Jong-su dreams about a burning greenhouse. The dream is not heavily signalled and other ‘events’ in the film may also be dreams. It’s one of those narratives in which the ‘reader’ can never be sure of the ‘truth’ of statements. That may irritate some readers and intrigue others. It all worked for me and if you are lucky enough to live within a reasonable distance of one of the few cinemas showing the film, I’d strongly recommend making the trip. West Yorkshire fans – it’s coming to Square Chapel in Halifax on 16-19 February.