September 19, 2018

VIFF 2018 | 'The Sisters Brothers' Shoots Sideways

"We're the Sisters brothers."
John C. Reilly Joaquin Phoenix Jacques Audiard | The Sisters Brothers | VIFF 2018

VIFF 2018—Set in 1851 in the American West during the California Gold Rush and based on Canadian-born author Patrick deWitt's historical novel, French filmmaker Jacques Audiard's adaptation of The Sisters Brothers is slightly surreal, post-modern take on the classic western genre of films. It's an entirely clever and wholly original take on men of the old west for contemporary times.

Powerhouse actors John C. Reilly (also a producer) and Joaquin Phoenix star as unlikely brothers, the titular Eli and Charlie Sisters, in a dually gruff set of contrasting performances where they bicker and antagonize each other just as they effortlessly act as efficient hired gunman. Their chemistry really sets a unique interpretation of brotherly love.

Nightcrawler co-stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Riz Ahmed recreate their sparkling chemistry as polite sort of adversaries. Gyllenhaal's sensitive and thoughtful portrayal back and forth with Ahmed's earnest yet sweetly captivating performance really highlights the various portraits of conflicted men.

The film is framed as two parallel stories featuring the two pairs before they meet and all the affecting performance sublimate into a truly wondrous set of interactions between the four that's quite unlike anything else. These four actors give it there all in quietly small moments of emotion to express each's struggles as men.

What stands out most about The Sisters Brothers' sensibilities is how it plays, subverts, and wryly toys with standard western genre conventions for some truly surprising and sometimes comic reactions. Introspective and intimate, it's a thoughtful work that might confound traditional western viewers and their well-worn expectations for the classic American film genre.

John C. Reilly Joaquin Phoenix Jacques Audiard | The Sisters Brothers | VIFF 2018

Shot with great reverence by Belgian cinematographer Benoît Debie, the film captures the lush but harsh Pacific Northwestern landscape through a breezy travelogue between scenes of murder. How Debie captures the hopefulness of the land perfectly contrasts the casual fatalism of the film's middle-aged characters.

Audiard's first English-language is quite an impressive one in its ambitious re-imagining of the Old West co-written alongside Thomas Bidegain. It's a leisurely yet engaging film of affecting performances. Episodically structured as a killing spree and slow chase before morphing into a dual buddy picture, the ritualistic portrait of mid-19th-century life as technology and modern living slowly transforms the American West slyly comments on a lost time.

The Sisters Brothers feels like such an idiosyncratic kind of anti-western and a true post-modern delight. How it subverts genre expectations and finds humour in moments of unexpected character emotions is truly remarkable. The way it mines truly comic takes on its bleak material really makes for a perplexing experience of baffling amusement.

The Sisters Brothers screens at the 2018 Vancouver International Film Festival as part of the Panorama stream.


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