Outlaws
The New Yorker|September 24, 2018
Outlaws

“The Sisters Brothers” and “Bel Canto.”

Anthony Lane

What is it with Jacques Audiard and amputation? The heroine of “Rust and Bone” (2012) spent much of the movie without her legs, having been lunched on by a killer whale. Now we have “The Sisters Brothers,” in which an important character mislays an arm—a manage­ able loss, except that the film is a West­ ern, and the limb used to come in handy whenever a gun needed slinging. Who’s afraid of a one­armed cowboy?

The story, based on Patrick deWitt’s novel of the same name, begins in 1851, at the fulcrum of the nineteenth cen­tury. The action sets off in Oregon and heads south, often at a canter, sometimes at a more leisurely pace, even pausing for a gawk at San Francisco. The prin­cipal riders are Charlie Sisters ( Joaquin Phoenix) and his brother Eli ( John C. Reilly). Charlie is a hothead and a brute— the stronger partner, you’d say, were he not ravened by a weakness for booze. So heavy is one hangover that he falls off his horse. Eli is the lumbering half of the duo, less cocksure and more tempted by the thought of a well­earned retire­ment. The boys could not be less alike, but they can’t do without each other, and what binds them together is their job. They are paid to murder.

Their employer is known as the Com­ modore, whom we see only fleetingly and who is never heard to speak. This is a shame, since he’s played by Rutger Hauer. (Was the role originally meat­ier, perhaps, before being pared to near­ nothing?) For their latest mission, Char­ lie and Eli must find a fellow named Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed), who is not, as you might imagine, a Muppet but a law­ abiding chemist. He is said to have “no friends, no baggage, no money,” but also to have invented a process for increasing the yield of trea­ sure from gold­bearing rivers. The broth­ ers are to mine the knowledge out of him, by any means necessary, and then shut him down.

First, however, the poor sap needs to be located, and so a scout, John Morris ( Jake Gyllenhaal), is sent ahead, the idea being that he will befriend the chemist, detain him, and wait. Morris is the most singular figure onscreen, and a graceful addition to Gyllenhaal’s gallery of lon­ ers, compiled in films like “Enemy” (2013), “Nightcrawler” (2014), and “Demolition” (2015). As an actor, he seems to be keep­ ing something back, or clutching it tight, and such tacit withholding draws us in­ stinctively toward him; it’s an especially good fit for this movie, which glitters with half­revealed secrets. The gold rush may have been crowded, but it was not a collective effort. As Chaplin realized, it swarmed with solitaries, all of them dreaming, like dragons, of a private hoard.

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September 24, 2018