I’ve been trying to figure out why “The Sisters Brothers,” the first English-language movie from the acclaimed director Jacques Audiard (“The Beat My Heart Skipped,” “A Prophet,” “Rust and Bone”) got the most warm and sustained round of applause of all the press screenings I’ve attended so far.
Perhaps it’s because we film press people have a special affection for John C. Reilly, who here realizes a career pinnacle in a co-lead role as one of the title brothers. As he’s also one of the movie’s producers, I suspect he knew this was a swing-for-the-fences opportunity, and he’s made the most of it in the role of Eli Sisters. It could also be because after several days of back-to-front event movies, it was salutary to sit down and be spoon-fed an unprepossessing crowd-pleaser of a movie.
Back to Reilly: Eli is the older brother of hellion Charlie Sisters; the duo are hired manhunters in 1850s Oregon, and the movie opens with a botched nighttime raid on a farm in the aftermath of which Eli is heard to observe to Charlie, “Well, we f**ked that up pretty good.” We are meant to believe that the boys are both sloppy and inept at their jobs, which they do at the behest of a businessman called “The Commodore.” And that Eli is the more inept of the two.
But initial impressions prove misleading. The Sisters Brothers are in fact a lethal duo who don’t do themselves a lot of favors. Eli’s a bit of a softie, while Charlie is a hard drinking madman whose bluff talk doesn’t hide his terror at the prospect of ending up like the duo’s abusive father. They are sent on a mission to follow a private detective named John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal) who’s set to apprehend a fellow who’s earned the Commodore’s ire. The real reason the Commodore’s after this guy is related to the rapacious nature of old West capitalism, and over the course of a trek from Oregon to San Francisco alliances shift and even the most recalcitrant of deed-doers learns how to change.
Pre-screening talk of this movie, which has been in the works for some time, spoke of a potential “revisionist” Western, one that might, in the context of this festival at least, provide a socially-conscious answer film to the Coen Brothers’ gleefully impertinent “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.” While “The Sisters Brothers” is pretty sincere about the shifting shadows of good and bad within its characters, which certainly is a contrast to the Coens’ cold eye on life and death, “The Sisters Brothers” is in the end about as revisionist as a Burt Kennedy picture. It’s beautifully shot, and while certain aspects of its storyline are a little too shaggy-dog for my tastes, it’s a compulsively watchable picture with as sweet a “no place like home” coda as you’ve ever imagined. And while Phoenix and Gyllenhaal and Riz Ahmed are all terrific, this is really Reilly’s show; in this role he showcases genial goofiness but also genuinely stalwart heart. I never say this or even think this, but I’ll break precedent: give the man his Oscar already.
Sometimes it’s good to go into a film relatively cold. Skimming the festival catalog description of “La Quietud,” the new film from Argentine director Pablo Trapero, I envisioned an intimate family drama maybe in the mode of “Summer Hours,” but feistier. Imagine my surprise when twenty minutes into the movie two lead characters, sisters, share a bed and begin masturbating in tandem to a sexual fantasy about the hot guy who used to fix the family ranch’s plumbing back when they were teens. And said sisters are played by Bérénice Bejo and Martina Gusman, who look like they could be twins.
This is a very frisky family. Bejo’s character is married to Edgar Ramirez, but she also carries on with the son of her diplomat father’s best friend when that guy visits Paris, where she lives. But Gusman’s character is also boinking Ramirez’s character. The only one not getting any on the regular is matriarch Graciela Borges, the veteran actress (also seen in Lucrecia Martel’s 2001 “La Ciénaga”) who here gives the most ferocious performance out of a movie made for such things.
Once the movie shifts its focus from the jaw-dropping sexual shenanigans and focuses on the legal troubles that beset the household once its patriarch dies, and sins of both the father and mother related to Argentina’s real-life secret detention centers of the ‘70s and ‘80s, “La Quietud” lands on shakier ground. Not because Trapero’s interpolation of real historical atrocity is glib, but because the secrets and lies are revealed so operatically and then not given any narrative space in which to air out; instead, the picture races to a rather ridiculous redemptive coda.