I know I said I wasn’t going to do this anymore but c’est la vie. Along came a beautiful film and I just had to write about it.
There are so few beautiful films these days. Or, perhaps it’s just me.
Perhaps if I was, say, ten years younger I would write something like, What a privilege it is to be alive in the cinema world of 2019! And what a beautiful cinema world it is!
Maybe…Anything is possible.
Now keep in mind that I used the word beautiful as opposed to the word good. I could have used the word good, but that would be a different debate-one that I’m not prepared to have.
Anyway, if you’ve seen The Sisters Brothers, you might be disconcertingly meh about it. Sure…That could happen…Or, you may just not like it.
You may find the film ostentatiously strange. Or overwrought in length and plot. Or both.
But one thing for sure: You will think it’s beautiful. If you appreciate cinematography.
In fact, it may be too beautiful–like much of the late 60s television series photography that mimicked the musicals of the technicolor film era. Pretty boy beautiful, like George Hamilton was.
(For those of you who don’t know who George Hamilton is, here’s a more contemporary reference:) Like Justin Bieber was.
Cinematographer Benoit Debie filmed The Sisters Brothers in 35 mm. He mimicked the color palate of the Godfather II (1974), the last film filmed in classic technicolor. Like Godfather II, the core colors of the film are warm, black to varying hues of brown and gold. But Debie doesn’t stop there. He channels inspiration from Sam Peckinpah’s, Ride the High Country (1962) and–dare I say–Victor Fleming’s mother of all technicolor films, The Wizard of Oz (1939).
To be fair, Debie always shoots in 35 mm. And it shows. Lushness is a Debie trademark and he goes bonkers with it in The Sisters Brothers. That is, when he is shooting a surrealistic sequence. Otherwise he sticks with his core colors with and an occasional pop of technicolor inspired red, or blue and the sudden swoosh of white.
The Sisters Brothers is a film about waking up in a nightmare that happens to be life. That’s the reality that Eli Sisters (John C. Reilly) finds himself in when he assumes the lifelong responsibility of looking out for his younger brother Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix). Eli bears the cross of guilt.
When the boys were teenagers Charlie shot and killed their abusive, sadist father. Eli, the gentler, mentally healthier brother, couldn’t bring himself to pull the trigger and–in his eyes–since he was older, his father’s killing was supposed to be on him.
Consequently, the Brothers Sisters had to go on the run. Somewhere along the way they became hit men for a wealthy land baron that goes by the title “the Commodore” (Rutger Hauer). That’s all he goes by. He doesn’t admit to a real name.
To add insult to Eli’s plight, the bothers found themselves in a “Boy Named Sue” situation and they had to be even meaner hit men than they would have been without the family moniker. Again, Charlie leads the way and Eli follows him.
Charlie likes his work. Eli does not. Both are very good at what they do, but Eli is better. That’s because Charlie often lets his impulsivity and immaturity get the best of him, though he’s definitely the more creative one.
Eli is an efficient, robot-like killer. He also pines over a shawl. He folds it obsessively when he thinks Charlie is asleep. It is the shawl of, probably, the only woman Eli has ever kissed. He fantasizes about having a family with her.
The Commodore sends Eli and Charlie after an idealistic, docile, totally zen chemist (Riz Ahmed) who has invented a formula that, when mixed with water, illuminates gold to a florescent green so that it can be fished out of rivers and streams nocturnally. The plan is to intercept the chemist and his Marshall handler (Jake Gyllenhaal), who also happens to be on the Commodore’s payroll. The Marshall will, ostensibly, hand over the thoroughly duped chemist to the Sisters brothers who, in turn, will torture the chemist until he spills the beans, his guts and the formula. Then they will dispose of the chemist.
But the plan is fraught with unforeseen obstacles, as plans usually are–as they especially are–in movies. There are bushwhackers who have got wind of the formula too. There’s the Marshall–a rouge romantic, dabbling in poetry and spewing flowery language–who grows enamored with his quarry’s intellect and humanity and decides to form a partnership with the chemist instead of supervising his demise. The Marshall is also very good with a gun.
And, then, there are the brother’s themselves. How long can Eli keep Charlie on the rails of sanity before the latter drags the former into hell? Is there one iota of hope for them?
Assuredly there is much screwball bungling and tongue-in-cheek hi-jinx mixed with two bothers just screwing around. Hence the comedy.
So what of the Revisionist Western thing? How so?
Well, violence–that old stalwart of the Western formula–is not the point of The Sisters Brothers, though it does have a strong presence in it. You may even say it is the tip of the spear. The foray, however, is in the psychology of the brotherly bond.
It doesn’t get more Revisionist than that.
Be that as it may, you might not click with The Sisters Brothers. But you can’t hate it either.
You can’t hate it because it’s beautiful. Watch it a second time and you will like it more.