Way Out West: VIOLENCE, GENRE AND THE SISTERS BROTHERS.
The Sisters Brothers (2018) is the eighth feature by French filmmaker Jacques Audiard, but it's his first in the English language, and the first to take him outside of France. It's also a change of pace, in terms of both tone and genre. Audiard is best known for making grim, contemporary dramas set among marginalised members of French society, like his acclaimed prison epic A Prophet (2009); the trauma-etched Rust and Bone (2012), in which Marion Cotillard plays a marine-park trainer who loses both her legs; and Dheepan (2015), his portrait of a Tamil immigrant pushed too far, which won the Cannes Film Festival's highest prize, the Palme d'Or.
But The Sisters Brothers is a western - and a comedy. It's based on a 2011 novel by Patrick deWitt, a Canadian writer whose surreal investigations of style and genre (the Gothic with 2015's Undermajordomo Minor; the upper-class-society play with 20l8's French Exit) unfold as absurdist comedies. The Sisters Brothers tells the tale of two siblings who work as bounty hunters journeying across Oregon and California in 1851, with much of its text dedicated to the pair's comic bickering.
Audiard was recruited to be the film's director by one of its stars, John C Reilly. Reilly and his wife, producer Alison Dickey, optioned deWitt's book before it was even published, in 2011. (1) Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix star as the titular siblings: the latter playing the drunken, firebrand older brother, Charlie Sisters; the former, the more sensitive, sweet-natured Eli. The brothers work for a shadowy figure called the Commodore (Rutger Hauer), who sends them on a job to meet private investigator John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal). Morris has been tailing a gold prospector, Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed), who has invented a chemical formula to illuminate gold in river water. When Morris fails to meet the Sisters brothers at their appointed rendezvous point, they intuit that Morris and Warm have gone off together, hoping to strike it rich. When the quartet finally come together, there's neither a stand-off nor bloodshed - though there is, ultimately, tragedy. Instead, the four find a fraternity, each united in dreams not just of riches, but of living a better life.
Despite his film's period setting and western tropes, Audiard is still exploring familiar themes: cruel societies, the morality of criminality, violence (on both personal and systemic levels), family heritage, and cycles of abuse and suffering. 'I felt like this was a foray into a totally new world: someone else asked me to do it, [...] it was a different genre, in a different language, shot in different countries,' Audiard says. 'I [only] realised quite late into filming that I was actually filming something familiar.'
An auteur's journeys into genre
Audiard describes The Sisters Brothers thus: 'Of course it's a western. But it's a Gothic tale. It's a fairytale without the fairies.' This isn't the first time he's worked within the world of genre, or that he's worked to fuse genres together. A Prophet, perhaps his most famous film, is a prison movie. Crime has been a constant in his films: his debut, See How They Fall (1994), finds a sales representative sinking into an underworld in search of retributive justice; Read My Lips (2001) charts a romance (and a heist scheme) between a secretary and an ex-con; The Beat My Heart Skipped (2005) follows a young man who's both a crooked, violent real-estate dealer and a concert pianist; and Rust and Bone sets its marine-park trainer opposite a security guard who battles in an illegal underground fighting ring.
In Dheepan, Audiard - inspired by David Cronenberg's A History of Violence (2005) - made a film that moves through genres, changing tones as it goes. In telling the story of three Tamil emigres who flee Sri Lanka by posing as a family, it moves from a documentary-style portrait of migrants in exile to a fishout-of-water comedy about life in a new country to an in-theprojects crime drama to, finally, a vigilante movie. At a telling moment, its titular character (Antonythasan Jesuthasan) draws a white chalk line between two buildings in a crime-riddled council estate, defiantly declaring a 'no-war zone'. 'When Dheepan puts that line in the middle of the courtyard,' Audiard offers, 'it's as if [he's] saying, "If you cross this line, we change genres; if you cross it, you cross the genre barrier.'"
Audiard is drawn to genre as a way of interrogating personal ideas within a form familiar to audiences. Often, that means undermining old tropes, examining them anew or employing a socialrealist mise en scene. 'What really interests me in approaching a new genre is that each genre has its own rules, its own codes and conventions,' Audiard says. 'These genres are like short cuts for viewers, who immediately understand all these codes and conventions and tools. You don't have to do some huge exposition [...] it gives you full freedom to explore what you have to say.' He further describes the benefits of a genre-focused approach: 'People already recognise the framework, so immediately they can see that you're using these familiar codes and conventions to say something. It's incredibly safe and quick, but it allows you to go much further.'
Among all the genres Audiard is fond of, though, the western is notably absent. Had he just happened upon deWitt's novel in a bookstore, he muses, he 'would've probably just fallen in love with it and given it to all [his] friends' but never considered it for an adaptation. 'Because it's a western,' Audiard says, simply. 'I don't like westerns.'
Of course, when pressed on the subject, Audiard rattles off a host of westerns that he does like, and that did inform The Sisters Brothers: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (John Ford, 1962), Little Big Man (Arthur Penn, 1970), Jeremiah Johnson (Sydney Pollack, 1972). 'I'm only interested when it's an exploration of characters, not just a story of a "good" cowboy who just shoots people,' Audiard says. It's notable that the films he cites come from an era in which the 'oater' of Hollywood old - a B-movie adventure starring a simple cowboy hero - was being re-examined, leading to a new wave of films referred to by critics as 'revisionist westerns'. (2) In the revisionist western, motion-picture games of 'cowboys and Indians' would give way to uneasy explorations of American cultural identity, and the role of violence in the formation of the nation.
That innate Americanness was part of what had kept Audiard distant from such a genre. 'For a French person, a European person, the western doesn't make much sense, culturally,' he shrugs. 'It's not our mythology. The frontier myth is very important for Americans, for Australians - but for French people, not at all'
How the film fits - or doesn't - within the greater parameters of the genre is something Audiard isn't concerned about. 'Is it a western? Is it not a western? How is it looking through that prism? What is it bringing to that genre?' he asks. 'I couldn't find an easy answer to that. That's for scholars [to decide]; I'm just the director.'
But with its comic tone, mischievous misadventures and critical/cultural distance from frontier mythology, The Sisters Brothers pretty clearly fits into the greater continuum of the revisionist western. There are parallels to be drawn to pictures like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (George Roy Hill, 1969), McCabe & Mrs. Miller (Robert Altman, 1971), Dead Man (Jim Jarmusch, 1995) and True Grit (The Coen brothers, 2010), in which the western, with its many tropes, can be a forum for comedy, satire and even surrealism.
A great comparison for The Sisters Brothers is Slow West (John Maclean, 2015). It's another film made by a cultural outsider - Maclean is Scottish - that examines the frontier from afar. The film was shot in New Zealand, with its alpine landscapes standing in for nineteenth-century Colorado, this visual difference giving the him an outsider-western quality. Audiard, too, has made a film set in a realm 'that could be America, but it's not America'.
Audiard initially scouted the American West for locations, but felt that the landscape would be all too familiar for filmgoers, and that shooting there would be 'like using sets already used by other people'. Instead, production took place largely in Spain, with some shoots conducted in France and Romania. For an auteur like Audiard, who usually works with a small crew that resembles that of a documentary production, getting used to commanding a huge unit - 'It wasn't a team; it was an army,' he offers. 'Every morning at breakfast, I'd look around, and I had no idea how many people there were' - took some time. But the result is a film that carries the western hallmark of environmental grandeur, its titular siblings small players on a large stage, individuals at once larger than life and dwarfed by their surrounds.
Of course, having already dismissed the western, Audiard plays the refusenik regarding landscapes, too. 'I'm a film director, not a gardener,' he offers, in a great one-liner. 'I'm interested in the men on horses, the characters and their problems, not in the landscapes behind them.'
The way he talks about landscape highlights the curious relationship between realism and creation in Audiard's films. While he shoots with many of the visual associations of social realism and verite - handheld cameras moving in reactive fashion, unglamorous locations - his films are explorations of genre, both aping reality and making something removed from it. A key example comes with A Prophet: initially, Audiard inspected countless prisons, looking for somewhere to shoot, but then chose to instead have sets purpose-built - not just for ease of filming, but for a greater cinematic ideal. 'I didn't want to just reproduce reality. I wanted to have my own prison,' he says. 'That way, I know that it is cinema. It's realistic, but not reality. It's not a documentary - it's something that's created. I don't want to use landscapes; I want to create landscapes.'
Family dynamics, inheritance
In 2005, I interviewed Audiard just after the release of The Beat My Heart Skipped. In talking about the themes of the film, he asked: 'What does it mean to have this disparate father/mother relationship?' And further: 'What do we inherit from our parents? How much do we have to take the weight of what we inherit from them? What is our fate? And what is it that we can change?' In 2019, I read him back this quote, for an obvious reason: it sounds exactly like he's talking about The Sisters Brothers. 'Hearing that now, it's bizarre, almost troubling,' he laughs. 'It sounds exactly like I'm talking about this film.'
While The Sisters Brothers can be seen as a grand tale of killing and vengeance set against a grand landscape, it's really a study of the dynamic between two brothers. For Audiard, this was hugely personal. His older brother, Francois, died in a car accident when he was twenty-five (the director was twenty-two at the time). Though he didn't initially identify it when presented with the story, during the making of the film memories of his relationship with his brother 'flooded back' to Audiard. 'It was my brother and my relationship. Not exactly, but I felt that so strongly,' he says.
The brothers are squabbling siblings, bound to each other not just by way of their chosen profession and its attendant perils, but also by a violent childhood, in which they were the victims of a drunken, abusive father - whom, we discover, Charlie eventually killed. Difficult or deleterious relationships with fathers or father-figures recur throughout Audiard's filmography (in describing Dheepan, he has asked the question, 'Who are our fathers and what did they do during [World War II]?' (3) ). This is evoked in a beautiful, painful monologue spoken by Morris. 'I left my family out of hatred, and [...] my father was the person I despised most in this world. I despised everything about him. I sincerely thought I had been freed of all that,' he confides. T realise [...] that most of the things that I thought I'd been doing, these past years, freely - the opinions that I thought I had of my own volition - were in fact dictated by my hatred towards that man.'
Eli and Charlie still yearn, though, to return to some notion of home, to a place of lost innocence. At the end of the film, and their long journey, they return to their family home after years away. Their mother (Carol Kane) initially greets them with a shotgun and suspicion, but eventually lets them in. Despite being grown men, and killers, they seem like children when back in the place they grew up, seeking shelter and protection from the outside world. 'It's an illusion to think that the [Sisters] brothers are in their thirties,' Audiard says. As a matter of fact, they're twelve. They're still twelve. They'll be twelve till the end. They're just two adolescents that're lost in the landscape.'
Cycles of violence and vengeance
The Sisters brothers are violent men, but they have been birthed into a violent world, and raised by a violent father. Violence is the tool of their profession, and their success comes from being better at it than others. Their acts of violence, their paid jobs, often result in more violence: the brothers both being hired to enact vengeance and inspiring the desire for it in others, it being rare for even 'three or four days' to pass without someone trying to kill them.
'Charlie was always violent,' Eli says, in conversation with Warm, detailing how they happened upon their profession. 'When he got in a fight, it usually ended badly.' The consequences of the job are presented starkly - 'When you kill a man, you end up with his father or his brother or his friends on your tail, and you have to start all over again' - as is the inevitability of his own path: 'One thing leads to another. And I had to help him. He's my brother.'
Professionally trapped in this endless cycle of violence, the brothers can think of only one way to get out of it - to kill the Commodore (telling, given that the Commodore is a clear fatherfigure). So they set out to kill him, just as they killed their own birth father.
Audiard's movies are full of violence, often exploring codes of masculinity, and films like The Beat My Heart Skipped and A Prophet explore relationships between a son and a father-figure. 'I'm not consciously trying to study violence,' Audiard says. 'But I'm absolutely forced to realise, when I watch my films, that there are moments of extreme violence.' He argues that these moments of violence often radically change people's lives, and that he's interested in exploring those changes. Often, these acts of violence can be disastrous, for perpetrators and victims alike.
Audiard's first feature was translated into English as See How They Fall, but, he points out, the French title (Regardeles hommes tomber) would more accurately be translated as 'Watch Men Fall'. 'I didn't realise how prophetic that was,' he remarks, 'that, as a director, I was going to be making films about men falling. That I would have so many figures of virility, of masculinity, falling.'
When he takes all this in - the violence throughout his filmography, the recurring themes throughout his work, the lingering spectre of the death of his brother - Audiard sees his work, and himself, in the bigger picture. Sure, he's just worked with Hollywood stars on a western, and has toured through various genres along the way, but all those differences are just superficial. 'Maybe,' he considers, 'we're only ever making the one film.'
Anthony Carew is a Melbourne-based critic.
(1) See Eric Kohn, 'John C. Reilly's Producing Partner and Wife, Alison Dickey, Is the Secret Hero of The Sisters Brothers', Indie Wire, 21 September 2018, <https://www.indiewire.com/2018/09/the-sisters-brothers-john-c-reilly-alison-dickey-jacques-audiard-l202005849/>, accessed 11 September 2019.
(2) See, for example, Shane Scott-Travis, 'The 25 Best Revisionist Westerns of All Time', Taste of Cinema, 4 June 2015, <http://www.tasteofcinema.com/2015/the-25-best-revisionist-westerns-of-all-time/>, accessed 11 September 2019.
(3) Jacques Audiard, quoted in Philippa Hawker, 'French Film Festival: Jacques Audiard's Palme d'Or Winner Dheepan Is a Highlight', The Sydney Morning Herald, 25 February 2016, <https://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/movies/french-film-festival-jacques-audiards-palme-dor-winner-dheepan-is-a-highlight-20l60223-gnlpx3.html>, accessed 11 September 2019.
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|Date:||Dec 1, 2019|
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