The hitman movie hit a wall years ago, maybe as far back as Pulp Fiction, which billed itself as the last word on the sub-genre. Since then, it’s been variations on a theme, and the variations haven’t been varied enough to make a distinction. Nevertheless, Jacques Audiard’s English language debut (based on a novel) may be one of the first hitman Westerns ever made, so the French director gets points for at least trying to change the conversation, even if his movie doesn’t feel that original. Hitmen, of course, have to be in the employ of someone, even if they’re freelancers, but Eli and Charlie Sisters (John C. Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix) work for the mysterious and little seen Commodore (Rutger Hauer, though he appears so briefly that I wouldn’t have known it was him if I hadn’t seen the name in the credits), who seems to practically rule the Oregon Territory in 1851. Given the moral parameters of the Wild West, the Sisters brothers (the joke is only invoked once, thank God) are almost comic in their brutality. In the opening scene they kill not only their target, but massacre everyone in the house with him, while at the same time burning down a nearby barn filled with horses. They laugh off their seeming ineptitude, given that they fulfilled their mission.
As if often the case in this kind of movie, the brothers are not exactly equals in terms of responsibility and character. Though Eli is older, he’s not in the good graces of the Commodore, who works strictly through Charlie and trusts him to work out whatever plans need to be worked out. Eli, in fact, is hoping to get out of the killing game and settle down with a nice girl he met, but as in any comparable mob movie, Charlie says it’s not something you can just walk away from, though he tries to frame the argument within a sentimental paean to fraternity. Audiard thus creates a mood of potential tension between the brothers that requires something to make it snap.
That something is a job to meet up with a private detective, John Morris (Jake Gylenhaal), who is supposed to capture a gold prospector named Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed). The reasons for this odd configuration of task assignment puzzles the audience as much as it does Eli, and Audiard extends the conundrum by dividing scenes between those of Eli and Charlie on their way to the rendezvous, and those of Morris stalking and eventually catching his prey. Up until this point, the movie seems fairly standard, but it suddenly takes on a kind of dual urgency, as we learn of Warm’s plans and start to understand why the Commodore wants him, not to mention why the Sisters brothers have been dispatched to join in the project. The ringer is Morris, who, once he learns of Warm’s plan decides not to hand him over but, instead, join him in his quest, which is as much politically idealistic as it is economically rewarding. The conversations between Morris and Warm are erudite and stimulating (and because it is Gyllenhaal, who is playing basically a cowboy, the homoerotic resonance is keen), while those between Eli and Charlie are mostly marked by crudeness and a simplistic understanding of human nature. It’s thus surprising when these four finally meet. The results are unexpected and highly compelling, though the plotting is so dense you start to wonder how much disbelief you’re expected to suspend. After all, this is still supposed to be a Western.
But in the end it’s mainly a hitman movie, and in that regard it’s one of the better ones I’ve seen in the last decade or so. You even forget you’re watching a Western in that you eventually stop expecting the usual cowpoke tropes. Enjoy that while you can, because there’s a lot here to ponder.
Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Chanter Hibiya (050-6868-5001).
The Sisters Brothers home page in Japanese.
photo (c) 2018 Annapurna Productions LLC and Why Not Productions