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The Good, the Bad, and the Smelly – Review of Sisters Brothers

Chris Sullivan celebrates the gritty revisionism of the modern Western, but wonders whether Bad Smells alone are Good Enough

Chris Sullivan celebrates the gritty revisionism of the modern Western, but wonders whether Bad Smells alone are Good Enough

Many of us grew up on a diet of old Westerns. They were simple. Good guys in white hats bad guys in black; a trusty and yet vulnerable heroine: a femme fatale perhaps stirring up the plot. All the while, our heroes wandered the dusty towns clean as a whistle as if they’d just stepped out of a beauty parlour, delivering their gunplay with the necessary cool, making neat little holes in their adversaries.

Of course nothing could be further from the truth.  The very inaccurate Colt 45 blew a hole in a chap the size of a fist. Most gun battles were messy affairs. Even though just a few metres away from each other the adversaries hit the walls more than their foe.

The only women you’d meet in a bar were prostitutes. The men themselves stank to high heaven after wearing the same clothes for whole seasons and hanging out with livestock through 35 degree heat and intense rain, sometimes not encountering a bar of soap for months on end.

”You smell really bad.” But then again didn’t everyone?

Of course telling the real story, venereal warts and all, is now virtually obligatory in today’s Western movies, which has given the genre an entirely new lease of life.

The latest film to explore this historical reality is The Sisters Brothers, based on Patrick DeWitt’s novel, directed by the great Jacques Audiard (who made A Prophet in 2009).

This film tells the story of two assassins Eli and Charlie Sisters,  (John C Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix respectively) who roam the West in search of a chemist (Riz Ahmed) who’s teamed up with a right old weirdo (Jake Gyllenhall) and irked their boss The Commodore (Rutger Hauer).

Photo Universal Pictures

It’s all very well done. The performances are exceptional (except for Gyllenhall who has adopted this truly annoying mid-Atlantic accent for some odd reason). The cinematography is utterly wonderful thanks to director of photography Benoit Debie, while director Audiard references such classics as The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and McCabe and Mrs Miller. He laces his plot with a vein of comedy as dark as black pudding.

I’d still pay to see it but there is something missing while the point about the lack of personal hygiene is rammed down one’s throat with a toilet plunger.

As the brothers’ mother says to them both at the end of the film, ”You smell really bad.” But then again didn’t everyone?

Photo Universal Pictures

This trend for actuality over romance in the Western genre began with John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) – John Wayne’s sadistic anti hero filled with racial prejudice. During the sixties, while the TV was full of cowboys, the milieu was dying on the big screen as a new generation who opposed the Vietnam war and supported the civil rights and feminist movements, found that Westerns espoused everything that was bad about America’s history – machismo, misogyny and genocide.

Telling the real story, venereal warts and all, is now virtually obligatory in today’s Western movies

Subsequently, this new style of western crept in pioneered by Italian Sergio Leone and his spaghetti westerns starring Clint Eastwood that began in 1964 with a Fistful of Dollars and ended in 1968 with Once Upon a time in the West, after which Peckinpah steamed in with The Wild Bunch (his 1969 allegory for Vietnam) followed by Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man (1970) Ralph Nelson’s Soldier Blue (1970) Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs Miller (1971) and Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter (1973) and The Outlaw Josey Whales (1976).

Still, as great as those pictures are, by the late seventies the genus was croaking.

In 1980 the magnificent Heavens Gate directed by Michal Cimino bankrupted United Artists, which really put the boot in. As a result, the pickings were sparse throughout the eighties but, in the following decade things picked up with Eastwood’s outstanding last word on the subject The Unforgiven (1992) and the exceptional Tombstone directed by George Cosmatos.

Revisionist westerns had now taken over and  the genre itself returned with a vengeance after 9/11 with the likes of The Missing (2013), 3.10 to Yuma (2007) while more recently we’ve had the Coen Brothers, True Grit (2010), Traction’s Django Unchained (2012), Tommy Lee Jones The Homesman (2014). Craig Zahler’s superlative, Bone Tomahawk (2015) Alejandro Narritu’s mind blowing, The Revenant (2015) and Scot copper’s Hostiles (2018) all of which have been rather remarkable movies. Most exciting however is that a film is being made to conclude, Deadwood, one of the greatest TV series ever made.

But I don’t think the western will ever die as its archetypes, however uncomplicated, allow one a hanger on which to hang one’s coat – an ever present subtext that allows the director to wrap his plot with contemporary comment free from too much over explanation.

As such filmmakers will always look for a way to repackage the category as a chef might try to re-imagine sausage and mash.  Neither might always work but, when they do, they’re cracking.

The Sisters Brothers is in cinemas nationwide now

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