The Sisters Brothers: A Superb Overlooked Film

The Sisters Brothers (2018)
Directed by Jacques Audiard
Annapurna Pictures, 121 minutes, R (language and brief peekaboo nudity)

Once upon a time Westerns were standard fare in American theaters. During their heyday (late 1930s- early1960s) what one saw on the screen was both heroic and symbolic. These films were nearly always freighted with nationalistic assumptions: the triumph of good over evil, the inevitable victory of civilization over savagery, Westward expansion justified, and rugged individualism glorified. Heroes–cowboys, the cavalry, U.S. marshals, religious figures, honest loners–always defeated the “bad guys,” be they Indians, Mexicans, outlaws, card sharks, claim jumpers, or connivers. In 1971, Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller changed that. From that point on American Westerns became grittier, graphically sanguineous, and morally ambiguous.

Westerns never really died out, but their popularity waned once the white hats came off and lead characters morphed into amoral (and often slovenly) gunslingers, clever conmen, and hucksters. It also became problematic to treat those with red and brown skins as savages who deserved to be riddled with bullets. Post-McCabe critics often referred to a new genre, the “anti-Western.” The Sisters Brothers decidedly falls into that category. Perhaps that’s why it was seen by so few and recouped a mere third of its modest production costs, though I suspect it had more to do with being a joint French-American project rather than a Hollywood production. It showed in a small number of theaters, then disappeared. That’s too bad, as it’s a very good film.  

It stars John C. Reilly as Eli Sisters and Joaquin Phoenix as younger brother Charlie. Eli isn’t the brightest bulb in the socket, but he has a rudimentary moral center, unlike Charlie who is an angry, violent, suspicious drunkard ready to fight or shoot at the drop of ten-gallon hat. Eli pines for a school teacher who gave him a shawl he sentimentally sniffs and wears around his neck, but neither he nor Charlie have respectable jobs; they are hired guns for a rich man known only as The Commodore (Rutger Hauer).

It’s 1851, just two years into a gold rush that has spread from California to the Oregon Territory (OT), but the Commodore has more nefarious things in mind. He orders Eli and Charlie to go to Jacksonville, OT to rendezvous with another minion, John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), who will have detained a man named Herman Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed). They are to obtain from Warm any way necessary–read torture–a formula he has developed, then kill him. Nothing goes according to plan. Morris is outwitted, but he’s the wrong man for the job in the first place, a poetic brooder with little taste for violence. Warm convinces him that he has a plan that will allow both of them to make money and fund a utopian community near Dallas devoted to harmony, internationalism, and communal living. The Sisters Brothers must now track both Morris and Warm. Their journey will take them back across the border into California to Mayfield, a pop-up town like so many during the gold rush except it’s controlled by an imposing matriarch and madam (Rebecca Root) for whom the town is named.

The Sisters brothers are like superheroes gone bad and shootout scenes play out that way. They will eventually discover that Warm has filed a claim in Oregon, and track down their quarry, but circumstances are altered when they learn that his formula causes gold in creek beds to glow. Eli is even willing to listen to Warm’s utopian spiel, though Charlie is having none of it. In movies, gold is Chekov’s gun–a substance that corrupts and destroys. I will say only that nothing goes according to plan for anyone.

If you’re thinking the utopian stuff sounds far-fetched, let me assure you that it was a thing. Director Audiard, who also wrote the screenplay, references La Réunion, a short-lived community begun by Frenchman Victor Prosper Considerant and dedicated to the principles of another countryman, Charles Fourier. There were dozens of Fourierist communities in the antebellum United States that were built upon democratic socialist principles. You will hear film references to a Phalanstère, sometimes called a phalanx, which is essentially a largescale single-building complex in which members lived, worked, and indulged in artistic pursuits.*

O’Reilly is terrific as soft-spoken man who is conflicted by his violet lifestyle, but feels a fraternal need to protect his younger brother and focuses like a laser when the shooting begins. He’s not usually a lead actor, but he outshines his co-star, though Phoenix does a fine job of portraying a soul damaged in childhood who grows into a human volcano that periodically erupts. Gyllenhaal and Ahmed are also superb, the former akin to a philosopher carrying a gun and, like Ahmed, a decent man out of place in a Wild West corrupted by greed and unbridled individualism. Toward the end, you also see Carol Kane in a cameo, an actress I’ve not seen in years.

Audiard’s West is a place where dreams are crushed–no eucatastrophic endings for this film. He won a few awards at film festivals, as did Alexandre Desplat for his musical direction. The Sisters Brothers is a very good film and deserves a wider viewership.

Rob Weir

** La Réunion could have used an infusion of gold. It only lasted about 18 months before bankruptcy and bad weather put an end to an experiment in which French, Swiss, Belgians, and Americans attempted a grand scale communal life experiment.



Knives Out is Neither Dull nor Sharp

Knives Out (2019)
Directed by Rian Johnson
Lionsgate, 130 minutes, PG-13.

Da da da dum, dum, dum
Nearly everything about the murder mystery/comedy Knives Out is good. Not much is exceptional. In some ways it’s a perfect end of the year movie. It moves along crisply enough to keep your interest, it won’t tax your brain, and it won’t add stress to your life during the holiday season. In essence, it’s a big ball of tinsel whose sparkle you’ll enjoy, then you’ll toss it away and forget about it.

A good way to think about Knives Out is to imagine a cross between Agatha Christie and The Adams Family. Famed mystery writer Harlan Thrombey has just celebrated his 85th birthday, though “endured” is probably a better word, given that the event was attended by his extended family. To call that group toxic scarcely does it justice. There is imperious daughter Linda Drysdale (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her philandering husband Richard (Don Johnson); widowed daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette), a sort of lifestyle coach, though she basically sucks up to family members who can’t stand her, and cashes Harlan’s checks to pay the tuition for the elite college her daughter Meg (Katherine Langford) attends; youngest son Walt (Michael Shannon), who fancies himself a publisher though his father’s books are the only titles in his empire; Walt’s awful family; and oily, amoral grandson Hugh Ransom Drysdale (Chris Evans) whom everyone wishes to strangle. To round out a truly awful brood, Harlan’s ancient mother, Wanetta (K Callan) sits vegetative and mute by a window. The only positive presence in Harlan’s life is his immigrant nurse Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas) who is so honest she throws up whenever she even tries to tell a lie.

Hugh is the one most would wish to come into misfortune, but it’s Harlan who is found in a pool of blood the next morning. It looks like a close-the-books suicide but, as in nearly all mysteries, there’s a suspicious private detective who thinks otherwise. In this case, it is Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) who suspects foul play, though Detective Lt. Eliot (Lakeith Stanfield) is sure he’s wrong. (Isn’t that a dead tip-off in all such films?) Eliot’s bemused sidekicks are content to watch it all play out, and one of them is such a huge fan of Harlan’s mysteries that he sees parallels between the investigation and plots from Thrombey’s books–though he usually draws the wrong conclusions.

What we have is a classic mystery ensemble piece in which a whodunit, dark comedy, and caper collide. Like Hercule Poirot, Blanc’s initial suspect list contains everyone (except Marta). The film is a diverting romp that feeds upon red herrings, is peppered with acidic remarks, and is salted with overly dramatic acting. Everyone gets to chew some scenery and there’s plenty for all diners inside Harlan’s eccentric mansion. Christopher Plummer is always a delight and he in perhaps the most convincing character in the film, though it’s really Daniel Craig’s star turn. Craig is arresting behind his icy blue eyes, though his affected Southern accent comes and goes in authenticity. Ana de Armas is cute and alluring, but I could have done without vomiting as a major character trait. If I had to pick another actor other than Plummer who most stayed in character, it would be Jamie Lee Curtis. She is so tart and fierce that she looks as if she is constantly on the edge of tearing out someone’s liver.

Because this is an actor’s movie, it’s hardly surprising that a whole host of others wanted a piece of it. The cast includes bit parts and cameos from folks such as Edi Patterson, Riki Lindholme, Jaeden Martell, Frank Oz, and M. Emmet Walsh. Who can blame them for wanting in? One gets the sense that Director Rian Johnson encouraged his actors to improvise. Why not? I’m sure Rian Johnson, who also wrote the script, knew he wasn’t making Lawrence of Arabia. I give him credit for a diverting film that’s not really meant to become a film studies classic. The moment one begins to dissect this film, the fun goes out of it. Sit back, enjoy, and park your brain in neutral.

Rob Weir

Note: Knives Out was filmed in Massachusetts, especially at Ames Mansion in Easton. There is also an “undisclosed” location that’s in private hands and wishes to avoid publicity. I highly suspect, though, that Ventfort Hall in Lenox is that location.



Amazing Grace Too Timebound to Warrant its Kudos

Amazing Grace (2018/19)
Directed by Sydney Pollack
Warner Brothers/Neon Films, 87 minutes, G
★★ ½

The story behind Amazing Grace is better than the film itself. In 1972, at the height of a career that would ultimately yield scores of top-selling singles, multi-platinum albums, and 18 Grammy Awards, Aretha Franklin (1942-2018) took a step back to her roots in gospel music. Over the course of three nights in a Los Angeles church, Franklin made Amazing Grace, an album of sacred music that ultimately sold over two million units. At the same time, director Sydney Pollack (1934-2008) filmed more than 20 hours of raw footage that he planned to fashion into a documentary film. There was a problem; Pollack couldn’t get the film to synch with the music and he was so much in demand that he didn’t have the time to work on it. Thus, Pollack’s footage lay in a Warner Brothers vault until 2011, when producer Alan Elliott fixed the technical problems.

Then, as the slogan goes, weird things turned weirder. Franklin sued Elliott for unauthorized use of her likeness. He too put the project aside until after Franklin’s death. Then a new distribution company, Neon, and a group of new producers, including Spike Lee, sent the film to the Doc NYC, where it was well received. In 2019, it went into worldwide release.

Aretha Franklin was, of course, one of the greatest singers in popular music history. Some say she was the greatest–so renowned that she’s in the Rock n’ Roll Halls of Fame in both the United States and Great Britain, as well as the Gospel Music Hall of Fame. I would listen to Franklin sing in a room full of whirring chainsaws and, if you know her music at all, even money is that her voice would drown out the saws. I get it that a lot of people would want to see any film about such a beloved figure. Objectively, though, the most notable thing about this 1972 project is that is so 1972. By that I mean it features bad hair, cheesy costumes, and enough male chauvinism to make you wonder if feminism ever happened.

It was also religious music filmed inside a church and Franklin was a devout Christian, her two divorces, three (of four) out of wedlock children, and sometimes mercurial behavior notwithstanding. This is to say don’t expect to see any of the sort of stage antics you’d normally associate with a Franklin concert. She was there to sing, not talk or put on a stage show. Franklin’s voice is muscular, clear, and awe-inspiring. I thought I was immune to all versions of “Amazing Grace,” perhaps the most overdone song this side of Christmas carols, but Franklin slowed it to a snail’s pace so that there was plenty of space for bravado crescendos. Clara Ward (1924-1973) was in the audience and even she was blown away. If you don’t know that name, perhaps only Mahalia Jackson (1911-72) was more famous among female gospel singers. And Ward wasn’t the only one who was impressed. It was etched upon the youthful faces of the Southern California Community Chorus, who backed Franklin and musicians such as Bernard Purdie and Chuck Rainey who went on to fine careers of their own. Franklin also sang with such glory and power that members of the congregation often jumped from the pews to exalt and bear witness. (Not so Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts, who sat in the back benches at one of the services.)

For all of that, Franklin often looked the part of a deer in the headlights. That’s partly because the Rev. James Cleveland (1931-91) was the toastmaster of the evenings. Aretha was the Queen of Soul, but the Rev. Cleveland was the King of Gospel and the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church was his house. Cleveland exuded his command, sometimes in obsequious ways, but mostly by acting large and in charge. (He was both and, in those days; Franklin was slim by comparison.) Also in the house was the Rev. C. L. Franklin (1915-84), Aretha’s father. He was, to be charitable, a problematic figure. In addition to the four children he fathered with his second wife, he also sired one with a 12-year-old member of his congregation. (In 1979, he was shot during a robbery attempt in 1979 and died after a five-year coma.) He too had a fine voice, but he was very much a male of his generation, meaning that his very pores oozed patriarchy.

As concert films go, Amazing Grace is no The Last Waltz or Stop Making Sense. Part of me wonders if Pollack declined to correct the film’s technical problems because he couldn’t figure out how to make it sizzle on the screen and it wasn’t as interesting as The Electric Horseman, upon which he was also working. If you watch Amazing Grace, do so to hear Aretha’s voice and to acquire an accidental sociology lesson. As filmmaking goes, though, let’s call it one heck of a soundtrack in search of better visuals.

Rob Weir