The staggering lack of gender parity in this year’s Venice Film Festival competition slate — a grand total of 21 films, only one of which was directed by a woman — has produced a pledge, on the part of the festival, to correct that situation in the future. That’s a good start, yet it’s worth pondering why the numbers were so egregiously off in the first place. The most obvious question to ask is: Could every film that wound up in the competition really have been “better” than every last film, directed by a woman, that was submitted and rejected? Like many observers, I overwhelmingly suspect that the answer is no.
Yet there’s another issue that’s every bit as urgent. In a festival line-up, it’s not just a matter of what’s “better” — it’s a matter of what’s better because it’s different. Quality is a subjective thing, but let’s say, for the sake of argument, that you had two films of comparable quality, one directed by a man, the other directed by a woman. Isn’t it likely that the more diversifying choice might also be, in terms of what’s up on-screen, the fresher choice?
I thought of this, in light of the competition line-up, when I saw “The Sisters Brothers,” a violent Western picaresque that rambles and rough-rides like some quirky horse opera from the ’70s — but since it no longer is the ’70s, it plays a lot slower. The movie, which is one of the 21 competition films, stars Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly as the Sisters brothers, notorious sibling outlaws who work for an Oregon City mobster known as the Commodore (Rutger Hauer, who is seen only from a distance and has no lines).
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The brothers are his hitmen, trouble-shooting fixers, and thugs of all trades. Eli Sisters (Reilly) is the older and more responsible of the two, and also the more fretful, while Charlie Sisters (Phoenix) is a drunk who carries an attitude of jovial recklessness. The two take the piss out of each other on a daily basis but also work together like a well-oiled six-gun. They’re heartlessly efficient killers who can drop into any situation, and after firing away — the gun shots on the soundtrack are notably blasty and intense — will always leave a trail of corpses.
“The Sisters Brothers” is the first English-language feature made by the French director Jacques Audiard (“A Prophet,” “Dheepan”), and it’s a highly companionable Western, structured as a journey of discovery, full of salty dialogue that the actors chew on like beef jerky. I enjoyed the film as far is it goes, especially John C. Reilly’s straight-shooter performance, yet I also found myself, at certain points, growing impatient with it. I kept wondering: Is it the pace? The overly aggressive archness of the thing? Then I realized that what struck me as a touch wearying about “The Sisters Brothers” is that every last element of it — the brotherly bluster, the hostile japery, the killings, the plot that keeps bending around corners that don’t necessarily take it anywhere more interesting — is just so damn familiar. There’s room in the world for a movie like “The Sisters Brothers,” but it’s serving a reheated version of worn-to-the-bone male obsessions. And it made me wish, frankly, that I was seeing something bolder and newer. “The Sisters Brothers” isn’t a bad film, but a woman, if I can say this, would never have bothered to make it.
The movie traces the gradual unraveling of Eli and Charlie’s sibling-killer act after the Commodore gives them a routine assignment. A man named Hermann Warm (Riz Ahmed) has run out on a debt; he’s being pursued by a detective (Jake Gyllenhaal) who’s contracted to deliver him to the brothers. Hermann, a would-be prospector with a background in chemistry, has invented a formula that’s pure gold: an acidic liquid that, when poured into a river, will light up any gold rocks in it. The brothers are supposed to retrieve Hermann, torture him until he gives up the formula, then kill him. But along the way, the detective, played by Gyllenhaal as a friendly dandy who speaks in a ridiculously cultivated accent, winds up bonding with Hermann, and the two decide to become business partners.
Riz Ahmed plays Hermann with his usual commanding snap, and we want to see him succeed. Yet “The Sisters Brothers” has a rough-and-tumble absurdist cynicism about it. It keeps dragging its characters down, sort of the way the Coen brothers might, though with more ferocity and less style. There’s a lot of grueling hardship on display. A large spider crawls into Eli’s gullet while he’s sleeping, causing him to get sick, and the brothers take major punches at each other (Charlie compares Eli’s left hook to being whacked with a shovel). When they finally catch up to Hermann and Gyllenhaal’s John Morris, they’ve beaten down enough to join forces with them — which seems like it might be a slightly lazy sentimental turn, and is, until you see what happens when too much of Hermann’s chemical formula gets poured into a river. It is not pretty.
“The Sisters Brothers” is too light to be a true drama and too heavy to be a comedy. It’s that timeless movie thing, a lark, and on that level it works just fine. But it’s a lark that plods on more than it takes wing. It’s a movie that makes even its own glimmer of originality feel slightly musty. Nothing wrong with that. But it does get you wondering if there’s another film that might have brought the Venice competition more adventure.