The English-language debut from the French director is an all-American delight, starring Joaquin Phoenix and John C Reilly perfect as sad, squabbling siblings
Jacques Audiard is the French director who has notably absorbed American ideas into his downbeat Melvillian jazz of crime and noir. Now he has taken on that other great American genre, the Western, in this resoundingly enjoyable and funny movie, adapted by Audiard and Thomas Bidegain from the Booker-shortlisted novel by Patrick DeWitt. Given that it comes so soon after the Coen brothers The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, this years Venice might just be remembered for its Westerns.
The scene is 1850s Oregon and John C Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix play the quarrelling Sisters Brothers, Eli and Charlie Sisters, two rangy and disreputable guys liable to come riding into town up to no good. They are in fact assassins, working for a shadowy person nicknamed the Commodore, played in cameo by Rutger Hauer. Their latest mission is to travel to San Francisco a Babylonian centre of worldly pleasure which astonishes and excites these rather provincial men in order to whack a certain individual called Hermann Kermit Warm, played by Riz Ahmed.
But tracking the victim down is not their responsibility as such; the Commodore has assigned this to a prissy private detective, John Morris, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, who is always a few days ride ahead of the boys and irritates Charlie intensely with his pompous letters telling them what to do. The Sisters siblings do not in fact appreciate the exact reason for the Commodores interest in Warm, and Morris understands it before they do, leading the men into a terrible, fatal secret. Finally Eli and Charlie, like Butch and Sundance before them, suspect that there are some pretty persistent people on their own tails.
Reilly (who also produces) gives another warmly melancholy, hangdog performance as the beta-brother Eli not so far in fact from his performance in the comedy Step Brothers, opposite Will Ferrell. He is always complaining and whingeing about the fact that he somehow gets paid less than Charlie, on the specious grounds that Charlie has been designated the lead killer. He also objects to Charlies harsh and insensitive language, and Reillys emotional woundedness almost makes you forget the irony, considering what he does for a living. Joaquin Phoenixs Charlie himself is a sneery cynic and drinker, who tends to spend the first part of any day in the throes of a hangover, falling off his horse and throwing up. But their abusive family background has grimly taught Eli why Charlie gets to be top dog. Carol Kane has an endearing and funny cameo as their elderly mother.
The harshness of their lives together on the trail is grippingly recorded, and there is a horrible moment when Eli is asleep, snoring with his jaw unattractively slack, and a spider inches up his chest, onto his chin and agonisingly close to the abyss of his open mouth. The entire audience winced. But Eli is aspirational: he is the brother who buys one of the new-fangled toothbrushes for making ones breath fresher and teeth longer-lasting and notes that Morris has invested in one as well. In fact, it is Charlie who is the person with no appreciation of the modern world. Warm has a very futuristic vision. He is a scientist and chemist with a lucrative invention which affords the Sisters brothers and us, the audience, an awful vision of how in the decades to come the American landscape could be poisoned, and the bodies of American workers endangered, by big business.