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The Western Gallops Into Oscar Season With ‘Sisters Brothers’ and ‘Buster Scruggs’

The western remains, thankfully, alive and well, and two films dropping at the Venice Film Festival this week remind us there is still plenty to explore in the genre.

In Jacques Audiard’s “The Sisters Brothers,” actor John C. Reilly — who developed the project with his wife — offers one of his finest portrayals opposite Joaquin Phoenix as one half of a bounty-hunting duo. It’s a performance reflective of the movie itself, one of both hard-bitten toughness and unexpected tenderness.

In a recent interview with Variety, Reilly said he didn’t want a cliched or romanticized version of the west or mythic anti-heroes of that realm. He wanted to reflect the reality, particularly the multi-cultural one. “There were Chinese people and French people and Hungarians and Russians and all these people coming from all over the world in this mad search for opportunity or a freer life,” he said, also noting the unexpected “emotional availability” of the characters in Patrick deWitt’s novel.

The production went to Spain, Romania and France with Audiard’s sensibilities at the helm, culminating in what you might even call a European western. It’s unlike most entries in the genre for stated reasons, and though his co-stars Phoenix, Jake Gyllenhaal and Riz Ahmed bring invaluable contributions, Reilly really pops, his ambition and determination to realize this project apparent in his efforts on the screen.

(Reilly, by the way, is all over the place this year, also starring as Oliver Hardy in Jon S. Baird’s “Stan & Ollie,” Dr. Watson in Etan Cohen’s “Holmes and Watson” — the duos abound — and of course a reprise of the lovable Ralph in Disney’s “Wreck-It Ralph sequel “Ralph Breaks the Internet.” More on all of that in an upcoming episode of Variety’s “Playback” podcast.)

Also bowing in Venice was the Coen brothers’ “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” already a curiosity this year due to its initial announcement as a television series. In point of fact, it was never a television series and was always conceived as an anthology movie. And it’s flippin’ great.

What stands out about “Buster Scruggs” is language. The Coens seem to never conjure such inspired dialogue and turns of phrase as they do when dabbling in the classic Americana of films like “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” and “True Grit.” Delighting in actors like Tim Blake Nelson, Stephen Root, Zoe Kazan and Saul Rubinek biting into their delicious lines is half the experience.

Like a dime-store novel of collected stories, the film is comprised of six chapters, and everyone will have their favorite. I was personally won over by a quietly compelling segment, based on a Jack London story, starring Tom Waits as a gold digger looking to strike in solitude. (Waits also turns up in “The Old Man & the Gun,” which premiered at the Telluride Film Festival this weekend.) But Kazan might have the best shot at awards recognition from the cast, as her chapter lands the biggest punch. Bruno Delbonnel’s photography is gorgeous in the sibling filmmakers’ transition to digital, and of course period details are all exquisite.

It’s a shame neither of these films could make the trip to Telluride, where the scenery is so evocative of western mythology. But it’s nevertheless exciting to see the genre maintain a foothold with dynamic filmmakers who can give us fresh angles on its well-worn tropes. Keep ‘em coming.

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