By Andrew Kendall in Toronto
“The Sisters Brothers” opens with gunfire. There’s a cacophonous din as we watch a gunfight that deftly moves between deadly and ridiculous. On one hand, it’s a perfect representation of this film, which never settles on a single tone. On the other hand, it belies a story that offers up a parade of men on display that moves beyond the banal “men, weapons and revenge” theme it might present itself to be.
French director Jacques Audiard makes his English language debut in an unusual and sprawling comedy-western “The Sisters Brothers.” The film is an adaptation of a Patrick deWitt novel that was optioned by John C. Reilly’s production company before its official release. The film follows the eponymous Sisters Brothers (played by John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix), a pair of assassins in the mid-19th century who become entangled in the events of the California Gold Rush. The merciless gunfight that opens the film will not be the last. The men are journeying to track down Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed), a chemist with an idea that a rich man wants. That’s the bare bones of the plot, which depends less on forward moving chronology than on its sprawling discursiveness.
The brothers’ journey to find Warm becomes a kind of a road-trip movie augmented by humour and violence. We watch them engage with each other, learn of their difficult relationship and watch the film flirt with becoming a character study as we come to know these men. But this road trip has a clear purpose. Further ahead of them, Warm is travelling to California trailed by John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal) – a detective assisting the brothers in finding Warm. It’s with the introduction of Morris and Warm to the narrative that the film begins to gestate into what it’s really about. Rather than the expected tale of male bravura, it is about the way that men interact with each other. Audiard picks at the nature of male-male relationships, filial and otherwise. So we watch Phoenix’s erratic and hot-headed Charlie Sisters torment and exasperate his more diffident brother Eli, and that relationship is offset by the steely Morris and the gregarious Warm. The name feels intentional. And it’s in the relationship between Morris and Warm that I find the “The Sisters Brothers” most compelling.
Ahmed and Gyllenhaal are teaming up again after their stellar work on “Night Crawler” and during the Q&A at the end of the film, Gyllenhaal pointed out how the dynamic has changed since then. Here, it’s Ahemd’s beguiling scientist who seems to hold everything together. And in a way he is the essential glue keeping the bulk of the film’s main plot together. He’s the man everyone wants – albeit for different reasons. Ahmed’s bright eyes are his best asset, and although the film has little to say about race relations in the 1850s, his Asian presence within the film offers a welcome departure from the limited scope for non-white actors in Western. Ahmed’s performance is made all the more impactful against Gyllenhaal, who gives my favourite performance of the film as the taciturn and pedantic detective.
I’ll admit, I left the film wishing in an almost heretic way that the film was about those two men and not the two brothers. It’s not that what Audiard gives us is weak. The brothers’ narrative is consistently pulsating and consistently funny and John C Reilly, in particular, is spectacular in what’s probably his best performance. It’s easy to see why he was intrigued by the text. It’s the most irreverent sort of comedies and gives him a chance to show his ability, which comes too rarely. But Audiard can direct sensitivity with an aplomb and the burgeoning friendship between Warm and Morris becomes a bedrock of emotion that the film begins to rest on and becomes more pointed when the two pairs finally meet. It’s a master class in chemistry that is so good it threatens to upend the film. The film becomes different, not worse, but palpably different when they’re off-screen. And I found myself yearning for that film on occasion.
And, yet that sort of dissonance seems a part of Audiard’s larger point on life in the era being sprawling and untameable. “The Sisters Brothers” is always trying to upend or hoodwink us. And so the most terrifying moments (a deadly spider, a terrifying madam, a swift betrayal) are played in ways that offset their thrills to become comedic, or ironic. At first, the tendency frustrates. We might ask: What exactly is Audiard doing here? But then it starts to win you over, the same way that the gentle Warm seems to beguile those around him.
The “Sisters Brothers” in this way is not interested in a new idea of men or behaviour especially when read against some of Audiard’s French work, but it’s not less complex for this fact. The film is never casual, and never less than ambitiously rendered. Alexandre Desplat’s score is one of my favourites of the festival and is Audiard’s most dependable technical supporter in finding the right tone. It’s the type of musical work that’s so in touch with the sprawling nature of the film. For The Sisters Brothers is not an easy watch. Not for the violence which is stark, but for Audiard’s deliberate intention on subversions. The narrative sprawls, it’s odd, it’s sometimes frustrating but when it hits its notes it’s consistently rewarding.
It was the last film I saw at the end of a five-film day, and I was worried as to how much I’d be able to pay attention. But the film commands our attention even when we don’t understand where it’s heading. Nothing is lost in translation in Audiard’s English language debut; the film in fact depends on a string of linguistic jokes that delighted the audience. And then amidst all the blustering violence and almost bizarre comedy the film settles down to a last ten minutes that are moving in a way that I did not anticipate. There’s a shot towards the end of the film (Benoît Debie’s cinematography is excellent) as the camera rotates around a room indicating a passing of times as we watch the brothers in a series of moments. It’s a gorgeous moment and emphasises the way the film is never just one thing. Its final shot, for example, feels incongruous when put against its first. But it is intentional: these men are not just one thing. “The Sisters Brothers” might project an air of static masculinity but there’s more going on here than the expected male blustering.