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“The Sisters Brothers”: The American Frontier Through the Eyes of a Frenchman

In his very first western, French director Jacques Audiard combines a Canadian screenplay, American actors, and scenes filmed in Spain and Romania. The result, released in the U.S. on September 21, loses its way in parts but offers a beautiful take on America during the Gold Rush.

This project was long the stuff of fantasy for movie buffs. But those in the know had first thought of the Cohen brothers for the film adaptation of Patrick DeWitt’s novel. However, the two siblings were already working on their own western and refused the offer. Producer and actor John C. Reilly — who in the meantime had acquired the film rights to the book — approached Audiard instead.

“I would never have thought of making a western if I hadn’t been offered the chance,” says the director of A Prophet (Grand Prix du Jury at Cannes) and Dheepan (Palme d’or at Cannes). He even admits having greater affinities with Jack Nicholson than John Wayne. “I am not particularly familiar with the western genre. The aesthetic of wide-open spaces, horse riding, and pitched battles with Native Americans doesn’t speak to me as it is so far removed from my own creative world.”

This may be why the movie avoids most of the genre’s usual stereotypes. The Sisters brothers Eli (John C. Reilly) and Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix) gallop into the sunset firing off rounds at the hitmen hired to kill them, but also demonstrate a rare human side. The two brothers are sensitive cowboys before all else. Slaloming between the classic westerns by John Ford and the hyperviolence of Quentin Tarantino’s films, Audiard has chosen to create a third genre he defines as a “gentle western.” “The Sisters brothers are incorrigible chatterboxes, but also merciless killers, and this unexpected mix is part of the charm of Patrick DeWitt’s novel,” says the director.

A Pivotal Moment in American History

With regard to the masters of the genre, Audiard “lacks humility,” according to Claude Aziza, lecturer at the Université Paris III Sorbonne Nouvelle and co-author of Dictionnaire du Western. “Unless they have spent their lives in the United States, I don’t think a French person can accurately depict America during the Gold Rush. And it is pretentious to claim they can.”

Yet this is one of the movie’s strengths. Audiard’s camera captures the American West at a pivotal moment in its history. The film is set in 1851, three years after the discovery of gold in the Sierra Nevada. Prospectors continue to arrive in droves from China, France, and Russia to try their luck in California. Viewers need only watch the scene where a red-cheeked babushka sells borscht to a group of miners to get an idea of the context.

In the movie, the Frontier dwindles with the arrival of ever more settlers. The two protagonists travel through “villages that didn’t exist even three months ago,” and wood-frame houses spring up like filmsets in every settlement. In less than ten years, the population of San Francisco rose from 200 to 36,000 people. The city was already lit by oil lamps at the time, and the presence of a major French community saw it nicknamed “Paris on the Pacific.”

Historical accounts also interweave with the plot via the character Hermann Kermit Warm played by Riz Ahmed. This chemist has a plan to extract gold from riverbeds thanks to a formula he has invented, and hopes to use his resulting fortune to found a new, perfect society in Texas. The project is a tragic failure, of course, but enables Audiard to mention Frenchman Victor Prosper Considerant’s phalanstery, a socialist utopia founded in Dallas in 1855.

“The scenery is magnificent and the ending is an homage to John Ford’s The Searchers, but the director is clearly not comfortable with the western genre,” says Claude Aziza. A New York Times critic offered the same conclusion. With The Sisters Brothers, Jacques Audiard has indeed created a poor western but a beautiful snapshot of America.

U.S. release: September 21, 2018

Runtime: 121 min
Director: Jacques Audiard
With: John C. Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix, Jake Gyllenhaal, Riz Ahmed
U.S. distributor: Anapurna Pictures