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Jacques Audiard's 'The Sisters Brothers': Who says Westerns are passé?

Friday - 21/09/2018 05:41
The Western film's image is to many a musty one, riven with clichés. But with “The Sisters Brothers”, Jacques Audiard’s sublime new feature film, the French filmmaker gives the genre’s perennial reputation a shot in the arm.
© Shanna Besson | Actor and producer John C. Reilly in Jacques Audiard’s Western “The Sisters Brothers”, out this week.The Western film's image is to many a musty one, riven with clichés. But with “The Sisters Brothers”, Jacques Audiard’s sublime new
© Shanna Besson | Actor and producer John C. Reilly in Jacques Audiard’s Western “The Sisters Brothers”, out this week.The Western film's image is to many a musty one, riven with clichés. But with “The Sisters Brothers”, Jacques Audiard’s sublime new
“I don’t like Westerns. The characters are idiotic,” Audiard warns us when we meet to discuss the release of his latest movie, which opens Friday in the United States and Canada after hitting cinemas in France on Wednesday. Still, the acclaimed writer-director, whose “Dheepan” (2015) won a Palme d’Or at Cannes and whose "A Prophet" (2009) enjoyed Oscar and Golden Globe nominations, wanted to try his hand at the genre. The “Sisters Brothers” story, which star John C. Reilly proposed Audiard adapt from the book by Canadian novelist Patrick deWitt, was too good to pass up.

The narrative follows the ride of two mercenary brothers, Eli (Reilly) and Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix) in their pursuit of the brilliant chemist and gold prospector Hermann Warm (Riz Ahmed) and his unexpected sidekick John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal) around 1850 in the American West. While some recent Westerns have come in for reproach – like Scott Cooper’s “Hostiles” (2017) for its patriarchal bent and Ed Harris’s “Appaloosa” (2008) for its classicism – Audiard’s latest effort has managed to make a real Western that steers clear of the old clichés.

>> Encore!: 'Jacques Audiard is unique, even among French directors,' says Joaquin Phoenix

Real Western? With “The Sisters Brothers”, Audiard preserves the genre’s central traits. Film critic Robert Warshow described them in 1954: “As guns constitute the visible moral centre of the Western movie, continually suggesting the possibility of violence, so land and horses represent the movie’s material basis, its sphere of action.” While Audiard admits he has “no interest in the landscape” (which, for that matter, was filmed in Spain and Romania), the horses – “a chore to film” – and the violence – which he nevertheless wanted “very detached” – are on full view in “The Sisters Brothers”.

And while the cast is 100 percent male, the film is far from devoid of femininity and sensitivity. These brothers are not named “Sisters” for nothing and a number of female figures cast a shadow over the story. “The Western is not a feminine genre, but there is an ambiguity throughout the film. Actually, I humanise my population of viriloids,” smiles Audiard, who recently made headlines in Venice slamming the lack of gender diversity at film festivals.

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