The Old West gets a new twist

Chattanooga Times Free Press - ChattanoogaNow - - MOVIES - BY MICHAEL PHILLIPS

Bloody, sen­ti­men­tal and shrewdly acted, “The Sis­ters Brothers” opens with a con­spic­u­ous bang and then clip-clops along a wind­ing path, al­ter­nat­ing be­tween sib­ling- ri­valry wise­cracks and wry ob­ser­va­tions of a rapidly chang­ing mid- 19th cen­tury fron­tier full of star­tling new in­ven­tions. The tooth­brush, for ex­am­ple. Or flush toi­lets. The way John C. Reilly re­gards such won­ders, you’re re­minded of j ust how good he can be do­ing the sim­plest things.

Reilly plays Eli Sis­ters, the naive, re­spon­si­ble one of the ti­tle duo. His al­co­holic, dan­ger­ously touchy brother, Char­lie, is por­trayed by Joaquin Phoenix.

“We’re good at what we do,” Char­lie re­minds Eli early on, by which time it’s al­ready clear these sib­lings need a break — from their job, from their line of work, from the shadow cast by their drunken lout of a father.

The Si s t ers brothers kill for a liv­ing. The film’s open­ing night­time am­bush re­veals their lack of fi­nesse; strik­ingly pho­tographed by cin­e­matog­ra­pher Benoit De­bie, the melee leads to a burn­ing barn, and in one bizarre, dig­i­tally re­al­ized de­tail, a horse on fire, gal­lop­ing to his death. None­the­less they re­main in the em­ploy of a shad­owy fig­ure known only as the Com­modore.

Their l at­est as­sign­ment re­quires them to hunt down a chemist (Riz Ahmed) who has dis­cov­ered a way to lo­cate gold in river beds all over the West. This mirac­u­lous in­ven­tion poses a threat to t he min­ing com­pa­nies. An­other man in the Com­modore’s em­ploy, an East­ern dandy (Jake Gyl­len­haal), is sent on ahead of the Sis­ters boys to find and be­friend the chemist un­til the killers ar­rive.

But the chemist’s ide­al­is­tic talk of a shin­ing utopian com­mu­nity in­trigues the Gyl­len­haal char­ac­ter, and by the time Reilly and Phoenix get there, “The Sis­ters Brothers” has turned into a se­ries of best-laid plans gone astray.

The ma­te­rial comes from a book by Cana­dian novelist Pa­trick DeWitt, and t he f ilm ver­sion marks the English- lan­guage de­but of French di­rec­tor Jac­ques Au­di­ard (“A Prophet,” “Dheepan”). He filmed this lop­ing yarn, set in 1851 Ore­gon and Cal­i­for­nia, against the land- scapes of Ro­ma­nia and Spain. Quite de­lib­er­ately it all feels a lit­tle off- kil­ter. No­body quite knows where they’re go­ing in “The Sis­ters Brothers,” or how they’ll re­act to threats and en­tice­ments along the way.

Is Au­di­ard’s movie a re­vi­sion­ist Western? I’m not sure that la­bel means any­thing any­more. So much dark- hued, dero­man­ti­cized mythol­ogy of the Old West has sprung up in long-form tele­vi­sion in the ad­vent of “Dead­wood,” it’s mis­lead­ing to char­ac­ter­ize any­thing new as re­vi­sion­ist.

At its most an­tic, “The Sis­ters Brothers” re­calls such ’ 70s fol­lies as “The Mis­souri Breaks” in its rev­er­ence for creative ac­tors given all the room in the world to estab­lish a rap­port. Reilly and Phoenix make for the best pos­si­ble screen com­pany un­der the ma­te­rial’s half-kid­ding, half-se­ri­ous cir­cum­stances. These “sad­dle­sore San­cho Pan­zas,” as Rob­bie Collin put it in the Lon­don Tele­graph, also sug­gest a Wild West riff on “Rosen­crantz and Guilden­stern are Dead,” with Eli and Char­lie won­der­ing where they fit into the story pulling them for­ward.

In a few dig­i­tally as­sisted com­po­si­tions, such as the brothers’ first glimpse of teem­ing, big- city San Fran­cisco, di­rec­tor Au­di­ard cap­tures a lovely sense of sto­ry­book his­tory. In all his work, the di­rec­tor ex­plores both the real world and the movie past, of­ten in the same pic­ture.

Amid this co­nun­drum of a movie, the ac­tors pro­vide what t he facile screen­play can­not: a hu­man pulse, shrewdly un­der­scored by com­poser Alexan­dre De­s­plat’s time- trav­el­ing mu­si­cal land­scape.


Killers for hire Char­lie Sis­ters (Joaquin Phoenix, left) and Eli Sis­ters (John C. Reilly) fol­low a strange trail into the black heart of the gold rush in “The Sis­ters Brothers.”

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