For a long time, especially throughout the sixties and seventies, westerns ruled the roost in the cineplexes. But as the blockbuster slowly took over and science fiction finally found a strong footing in people’s wallets, the western eroded into a forgotten medium that occasionally rears its head to peek in on what’s happening around them, sometimes to great critical acclaim (Tombstone, Unforgiven, Open Range), other times in blink-and-you’ll-miss-it fashion (The Quick and the Dead, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Cowboys and Aliens) and tepid remakes (3:10 To Yuma, True Grit, The Magnificent Seven).
In that time, the western also evolved; it was no longer just your typical men on horseback in the dusty old west anymore. We now had what’s known as the modern western, which took the style and themes of the old and paired them in an era full of cars and modern technology (Hell or High Water). Two films went wide this week that convey both sides of the western coin: The Sisters Brothers, reveling in the harsh realities of a time when uncivilized gunslingers are starting to fade into the civility of the modern world; and The Old Man and the Gun, meditating on a modern bank robber who reminisces of days gone by, but is just as happy with the respect he provides his victims.
In The Sisters Brothers, Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly play Charlie and Eli Sisters, a pair of brutal, no-holds-barred contract killers in Oregon during the age of the California gold rush. They take their orders from the Commodore (Rutger Hauer), who calls on the brothers when he needs someone dead. They enjoy the rush of hunting their prey and will go to any lengths to get the job done and get paid. Their newest mark is Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed), a man who may hold the formula to a chemical that when put in the water, will reveal where the gold resides. The Commodore wants this formula for himself, so off go the Sisters brothers to track him, torture him and ultimately kill him.
Under the surface, the brothers are both going through their own personal issues. Charlie drinks his days away to the point that at times he can barely sit on his horse as they travel from Oregon City to San Francisco to track Warm. This drinking stems from his need to wallow in the pain of his first kill — the drunken father who beat him, his brother and their mother — while embracing the kills of others. On the flip side, Eli wants out of the life to open his own store. He harbors a fascination with modern technology such as the toothbrush, but is torn between making himself an upstanding citizen and his obligation to protect his younger brother, not only from those he hunts, but from his own self-destructive tendencies.
When I originally heard about The Sisters Brothers, I couldn’t picture Reilly as a cowboy; he just didn’t fit the usual profile. Upon seeing the film, I understand his casting as that bridge between then and now. He mixes well with Phoenix’s angery brutality, and the pair do a good job of selling the world around them. The problem is, that world doesn’t live up to what they themselves promise, as it seems quite drab and ordinary for its own good. Where it should be captivating and full of strength, it whimpers with cliches and familiarity that pulls them into a bubble of caricature.
Alongside the brother’s story is Jake Gyllenhaal as John Morris, a tracker sent to babysit Warm until the Sisters can get to him to do what they do best. Gyllenhaal is terrific, displaying a sense of civilized gravitas that is meant to taunt Eli into pushing him closer to his dream, and as the film jumps back and forth between him and the Sisters, you can’t help but want to spend more time with Morris. It’s a shame director Jacques Audiard doesn’t develop the character a little further, allowing his story arc to have the same resonance as his counterparts.
Robert Redford closes out his tremendous career with The Old Man and the Gun, a slow-burn heist drama that isn’t so much a modern western as it is a love letter to Redford and the films of the past. You can feel how much this film wants to be a western, right down to Redford’s character, Forrest Tucker, watching a western on television as he and his team (including Tom Waits and Danny Glover) plan their next bank heist. Even the name the media gives the team, the Over-the-Hill Gang, in a way pays homage to Redford’s classic western, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, in which his character was part of the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang.
Forrest is a lone wolf of sorts, famous yet completely invisible, able to commit his crimes and evade the police (and jail) without any remorse for his deeds. He’s a civil criminal; he does wrong with a smile and gentlemanly stature. For him, the life of crime is the only way to live, plain and simple. What you won’t see is any actual bank heist action. For the most part, Forrest makes sure to pick the right moment to do the heist and never actually holds the gun in question. He simply walks up to the teller or the manager and quietly asks for the money. The one time something does go wrong at the bank, we don’t actually see what happens; we only hear about it second-hand through witness accounts.
This is where some might see fault in the film, as it spends more time building the relationship between Forest and his love interest, Jewel (Sissy Spacek). For some, this predetermined choice to tell rather than show could bog down the narrative a bit because it doesn’t feel like the film is truly going anywhere. However, if you look at the film as more a documentary of the final act of this man’s life and how he uses it to give those around him joy, the film works in its own brand of seventies sensibilities.
Like Sisters, all of the acting is on point. The chemistry between Redford and Spacek is expected by such iconic actors, but it’s Casey Affleck who does a beautiful job as the detective on Forrest’s trail, slowly finding life again as he hunts for this man who can’t ever be caught. As he watches this man find nothing but pleasure in everything (and everyone) around him, he begins to understand that happiness and living aren’t dictated by age. If you enjoy what you do and are able to find happiness within yourself, chaos and crime isn’t necessarily evil, especially if it’s done with civility and an eye toward family and helping the ones you love. What could be more western than that?
My Grade For Both Films: B+
Next week, new movies include Hunter Killer, Johnny English Strikes Again and Indivisible. If you would like to see a review for one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.