Wednesday, 20 February 2019

Alternate Best Actor 2018: John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix in The Sisters Brothers

John C. Reilly did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Eli Sisters nor did Joaquin Phoenix receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Charlie Sisters in The Sisters Brothers.

The Sisters Brothers is an off-beat western about two assassins, who are also brothers, being tasked by their employer to kill an inventor, Warm (Riz Ahmed), who has created a way of finding gold. After watching the film again, I rather like the film, though I ponder if I would've loved it if it reduced the scenes of  the second pair of the inventor and the private investigator Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal) sent to track the inventor down for the brothers.

At the center of the film we have two atypical western leads in John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix, but we also have two atypical leads in the characters we follow. The two in the opening of the film are just henchmen with a reputation, not any sort of individualistic western hero, going about their job, that happens to be killing. In this then we get a very different perspective in this western through the Sisters brothers, and through these two performances. Now on one side we have Joaquin Phoenix who to say gives a dynamic turn has become rather redundant ever since he came out of "retirement" at the turn of the new decade. John C. Reilly on the other is actually rather dynamic actor as well, though perhaps far more covertly so. I already sang his praises once for 2018 in his turn as Oliver Hardy, but Reilly, despite being best known for his goofy comedies, has been given a variety of performances throughout his career. It is though a special treat then to have two films where he gets the chance to express his sometimes more hidden talents, in not one, but two films about an unusual pair. Of course where he and Steve Coogan, brought joy to the world as Stan Laurel & Oliver Hardy, the two Sisters brothers are there to reek havoc upon it.

This is made abundantly clear in the opening of the film where the two men go about dispatching a house of men. In this scene though we too see the actors establish the differing nature of the men in this sequence. Phoenix portrays a delighted, though understated, exhilaration in Charlie as he guns down not only standing men but also the injured. Reilly on the other hand portrays Eli as approaching this in a far more professional approach to the situation. Eli appears to be just as a efficient when it comes to killing however Reilly portrays no pleasure in the actions, rather it as just what it is that he needs to do. Their major difference becomes all the more evident though as their attack leaves a burning barn filled with tethered horses. Reilly expresses an immediate concern for the animals, showing the real passion in this act, that was not evident in the killing, against Phoenix he brings the slyness within the character's callous indifference. A man who doesn't necessarily want to see the horses die, but he certainly doesn't mind if they do. Charlie is the man who is the right line of work, the same is unlikely to be referred to Eli, which is established by so naturally the performances. It then is no surprise as we see the men receive their next assignment, where Charlie is denoted as the higher paid "senior" partner despite Eli being the older brother.

Now as with my other review of Reilly's work from 2018, it is essential to look at the pairing here, which is a fascinating one. Phoenix is great as Charlie who while has a more limited perspective as the more traditionally "flashy" role as the wild card brother. Phoenix once again delivers a compelling turn, which is indeed no surprise at this point, but nonetheless should not be hand waved. His performance manages to capture a very different type of unwieldy personality, which actually is quite a bit different from the typical psycho brother type. This is as Phoenix plays the part of Charlie as essentially this functioning psychotic. He is not a psychotic first as Phoenix is able to approach the part as someone who might be seen as normal at least at first. It is actually specifically in the detachment of those kills that is the most obvious sign of his twisted mind. Phoenix though is great in the way he makes it almost thing that Charlie is in this constant dance with, that goes swimmingly at first thanks to his line of profession calls for it. In turn in the moments of violence Phoenix is amazing actually by often playing them as this certain relief in Charlie, as though it is his moment to shine, and to be able to release his madness in a "useful" fashion. His unpredictability being something he knows how to use to scare his targets, and to thrive in his business.

This goes into great contrast to Reilly's rather quiet, yet incredibly powerful, approach to Eli. Reilly is able to bring so much into who is the man who often observes and simply follows along. This is as the violence is something he again needs to perform, but not something he remotely cherishes or enjoys. Reilly conveys instead this certain exasperation of the life in his face, that carries such a notable weight here in revealing the condition of Eli who essentially has become an assassin unwillingly. Reilly is able then to find this rather unique state of the man who is both burdened by the life and his brother. When in a relatively early scene Eli speaks of being able to go home after committing enough acts of violence, and having made enough money from it, his delivery is able to evoke not only this exasperation towards this life but also this earnest so very moving need to be in a better place. Reilly's performance though is careful though in the way he is about to realize this state not as this more standard "I'm too old for this" attitude. Reilly instead evokes the mindset of a man who has never appreciated the existence, and has been in this life mainly because there has been no other way for him. This again is in that earnestness he brings to trying to set an end date essentially with Charlie for the two to stop killing, as this poignant and humble hope of a good man, no longer wanting to be a bad one.

The two then how they come together is what really amplifies the strongest material within the film. This is as Phoenix embodies and manages to personify a familial madness, as their father was mad, while also portray a lack of the essential understanding that he shows far obvious signs of it, against Reilly's performance which expresses the observer of the madness. A most dynamic observer as Reilly's turn here, is what I would call soulful, as the highest praise I can muster, as there is so much within his face here. This mind you is in every single scene of the film that he is in, every moment that is onscreen, Reilly makes this impact through his subtle yet oh so potent performance. What makes Reilly's work so incredible is the way he is able to convey the long history of the brothers in every expression as he watches Charlie. This is in the resignation as he watches his brother kill and kill again to be sure. There is more though as Reilly's eyes are downright piercing here as he shows a very specific look. This being the look of an older brother looking out for his younger brother. Reilly in this is able to capture the sense of a brother seeking to see where his brother is going mentally, and the sense of concern for him becoming like their father is so powerfully imbued into his work. As Phoenix portrays a man very much with their goal in mind, Reilly shows Eli as carefully watching his brother, with really his well being the real of goal of his. 

I have to admit then what actually became the most compelling element of the film for me consistently was Reilly, who gives such a layered turn, that also offers such distinctly new perspective within the genre. Take for example the scene where the two end up in a, potentially hostile, brothel. Phoenix expresses Charlie's enthusiasm within the questionable place, just lapping up everything with such glee. Reilly though is outstanding in his distance here, especially in a moment where Eli attempts to partake. Reilly is sheer perfection in this scene as his delivery bring such a timidness as he attempts to create a situation with the prostitute as though they are an actual couple who love each other. Reilly is so good here as he avoids making this at all creepy, but rather is able to evoke this honesty in the need to make the connection more than sexual. He does so with the right timidness in the moment, and even a struggle in every word he speaks still suggesting a discomfort with the act. His way of trying to make it something more though is heartbreaking as in his eyes there is such a sense of loneliness in this need to create some moment of genuine affection within such an artificial situation. In this scene Reilly finds a man who is trying his best to make something out of what is really a horrible situation for him, and again is so effective in revealing this good man in a bad place.

The two do not immediately find their target though they do find some other violent men attempting to make a name by killing the brothers for the "prestige". Again the devilish smile on Phoenix's face is perfection as enjoying essentially both the sense of stature from this against Reilly strictly conveying the unease of a man who knows he's going to have to kill again very soon. The trail also leads them to civilization of sorts as they stop by in San Francisco and partake the offerings of an upscale hotel. This is a great scene that is so dependent though on the dynamic between the two. In the scene again Phoenix shows a man reveling in a spoil of sorts, just like he would any other part, whereas Reilly brings this wonderful curiosity to the alien features of the place with such a loving fascination with it all. This situation though leads Eli to finally suggest to avoid more killing by stopping the search after the trail's gone cold. Eli proposes to use their savings to ditch the life again. Reilly is marvelous in this scene as there is such an optimism in his initial delivery of the idea, with the warmth of an uncompromising brotherly love. This is especially in suggesting they open a store, with just a genuine love with his eyes suggesting a man seeing a better future. When Charlie brushes off the idea, that Phoenix plays with such an extreme callousness as though the idea is absurd, Reilly is so moving in the sense of defeat that comes over his face.

The conversation though continues as Charlie suggests he can find a different partner, which again Phoenix brings a disparaging attitude to. Reilly's reaction again says so much as his face is as much disappointment in himself, due to his involvement in their life, as it is towards his brother. I love this moment though as both here reveal the conflict as inherently between brothers. They bring both this frustration in the moment of brothers, Phoenix more openly as they would as boys, but Reilly bringing a withdrawn, yet still palatable anger, of age as he lashes out at his brother. Reilly's moment is extremely quiet yet so potent as grants the years of frustrations in the moment as he directly speaks ill of Charlie's behavior, leaving Charlie to try to attack him in a fit of rage. It is such a great moment as both actors make it such a naturalistic interaction of siblings with a long history. What is as good, and carries the same feeling is the morning after where Eli is still bent out of shape over the fight, while Charlie has more or less forgotten it. Phoenix is great in the scene by playing it so straight as nothing has happened, which captures so well a brother's way of moving on from a brothers' conflict the next day. Reilly in turn is just as good capturing a brother not moving through general moodiness still, despite Charlie's positivity in the moment. There interaction is so honest in this moment of reconciliation, as it isn't of this earth shattering affair, rather something that's happened many times before, though probably over other things. This is best realized in the moment where Charlie lets Eli hit him for his attack, to which Eli wallops him one. Both are hilarious in this moment, in such effortless fashion, with Phoenix's sense of surprise and Reilly portrayal of the deep satisfaction of getting one on his trouble making brother. They both bring just the right touch of petulance in the moment fitting to two boys who have been having this back and forth their entire life.

Eventually the two pick up on the trail of Morris and Warm who have gone into business together, but as one thing leads to another the brothers also join them in their quest to find gold. As the four prepare things together, Phoenix and Reilly again excelling in showing the brothers with their guard as down as it can be. Phoenix is terrific by making this a struggle in Charlie, and almost portraying this certain confusion at every moment of civility, as though his madness just below the surface makes it difficult for him to understand this type of treatment. Eli on the other hand finds a kindred spirit in the non-violent Warm who is willing to converse with Eli. What spurs the conversation initially is the death of Eli's horse. I haven't mentioned yet but Eli and his horse is honestly one of my favorite elements in the film. It is almost entirely silent interaction, as Eli has see the horse nearly killed by the bear with damaging wounds. Where again Charlie could not care less, Reilly best expresses Eli's humanity in every moment with the horse. There is such an empathy in every moment he speaks to the horse or sees his failing health. Reilly makes you not only see how Eli cares for this animal, he in turn makes you care about it. This is to the point that Reilly's final reaction of a sad resignation at seeing the horse's death is absolutely heartbreaking. He does not truly verbalize this until his conversation with Warm about his care for the horse, and Reilly again is so moving by playing it as this quiet release in the moment of finally getting to speak these burdens of a humane person. The conversation continues though as Eli expresses his regrets of having not killed their father, leaving it to their father. Reilly again reveals this as this burden, and I love how muted his delivery as this old regret. Reilly doesn't make this a confession of a psychotic but a genuine disappointment in one's self at not standing up to be the big brother for Charlie. This is as he explains Charlie was never the same after it, and in Reilly's voice he echoes the regret, but also that sense of love in his brother that caused such a regret.

The gold searching goes poorly as Charlie's greed causes over exposure to the chemical invented by Warm, leading to the death of those two men, leaving only Eli healthy and Charlie's shooting hand to be cut off from gangrene. The final scenes then are of a very different brothers that Phoenix and Reilly do not stumble to bring to life this change. Reilly is great by bringing now the confidence and comfort of the older brother, that probably existed long ago, as he protects the nearly disabled Charlie. This is again Phoenix who now is so much quieter as he shows a shame in the man humbled by his own excesses. Reilly though bringing such a driven power as the he fights for both of their lives, offering the conviction of a man who has long sought this dream. This is as they move towards killing their tormentor their former employer called the commodore. The scene before they move into the general is such great acting by both performers as the two build the internalized tension of the moment, now with Phoenix suggesting so well a change in Charlie showing concern for Eli in the moment, and Eli still taking charge now truly as the older brother. This of course leading to a great anti-climax of the commodore having died in the meantime. Both Phoenix and Reilly's reactions are terrific to this showing the annoyance at not being able to exact a personal revenge, with a particularly powerful bit of bitter annoyance in Reilly as Eli punches the commodore lying in his coffin "just to make sure". The two in the end literally return home to their mother (Carol Kane), which is a short but poignant ending of the two with Phoenix showing Charlie now relaxed away from his madness, against Reilly. Reilly's final smile of contentment is utter perfection, as he realizes so wonderfully Eli essentially finally achieving his dream, and makes this little finale something rather beautiful. Joaquin Phoenix gives yet another fantastic turn that one can throw on his ever increasingly impressive resume, in finding his own take on the psycho brother type. I will admit though I partly reviewed him here just because it would've been impossible not to talk about his performance when reviewing Reilly's work. The star here though is John C. Reilly realizing one of the most captivating characters of 2018. He gets the chance to fully show off his considerable range as a performer and does not waste it in his moving and dynamic portrait of a decent man at heart trying to reclaim that decency for both him and his brother.
(For Phoenix)
(For Reilly)

37 comments:

Tahmeed Chowdhury said...

Wow. Reilly is probably your #2, and he might as well give Gosling a run for his money.

Calvin Law said...

Any chance Ahmed could go up to a 4.5? I honestly think him and Reilly’s scenes were the most powerful in the film, and he deserves a bit of credit for them too.

Excellent work, I figured you might vary the ratings of the two. I also greatly preferred Gyllenhaal to you so it seems - on re-watch the accent is just terrible but I thought he got past that to give a good performance.

Robert MacFarlane said...

Man, I’d love it Reilly took the whole thing. It’s work that feels like a cumulation of his career and how he went from dramas, to comedies, to somewhere in between. I know a few Reilly agnostics/skeptics who were blown away by him here.

Calvin Law said...

It’s between Reilly and Gosling now, I think. Really happy that he’s gotten 2 5’s this year alone.

Charles H said...

Two masterful performances. This review also proves what i said about Gosling not being the easy winner for 2018.

Deiner said...

Great review Louis. I have this film on my watchlist because I really like Reilly and Phoenix. It is labeled as a comedy in IMDb, is it true?

Louis Morgan said...

Calvin:

No.

Deiner:

Not really, though there are some funny moments.

Bryan L. said...

Louis: Your past film roles for Reilly?

And may I have your thoughts on Bill Hader as an actor? I thought about asking a long time ago, but I figured I'd wait just in case you watched Barry.

Louis Morgan said...

Bryan:

Marty Piletti
Mitch (A Streetcar Named Desire)
Willie Gingrich (The Fortune Cookie)
Seymour (Little Shop of Horrors musical)
Arthur Jensen

Hader's interesting in that I think any comic actor, which I'll say Hader is a great at that, must be able to make that transition to convincing beyond the caricature. Not every comic performer can make that leap. I'll admit I had such concerns about Hader, despite enjoying him well enough in his smaller roles in various movies. His first test of this came with The Skeleton Twins, where he mostly erased any attachment, though there still was a vein of it there that left his character with some caricature features. He frankly regressed with Trainwreck, which while I don't think is a bad performance, was barely much of an acting performance. His work in Barry though threw any concerns out the window for me given the sheer range of emotion brought to that role, and the depth he revealed in his work. Otherwise his chances have been limited so I'll be interested to see where he goes forward with Barry of course, but really have eyes to see what he does in It Chapter 2. I'd say in certain sense he's in "limbo" for me in terms of potential as an actor, but his work in Barry suggests he's on the way up.

Calvin Law said...

2000s Marty directed by Tom McCarthy
Marty: John C. Reilly
Clara: Jane Adams
Angie: Richard Kind

2000s A Streetcar Named Desire directed by And Lee
Blanche DuBois: Naomi Watts
Stanley: Heath Ledger
Stella: Julianne Nicholson
Mitch: John C. Reilly

Late 2000s The Fortune Cookie directed by Martin McDonagh
Harry: Don Cheadle
Willie: John C. Reilly
Sandy: Elizabeth Banks
Boom Boom: Terry Crews
Chester: Philip Seymour Hoffman
Doc Schindler: Zeljko Ivanek

2010s Little Shop of Horrors directed by Paul King
Seymour: John C. Reilly
Audrey: Cristin Milioti (perfection if I may say)
Mr Mushnik: Peter Capaldi
Orin: Steve Coogan
Voice of Audrey: Childish Gambino

Emi Grant said...

I love the fact that Reilly has 2 fives now.

Louis: Thoughts on Eli's scenes with the toothbrush?

Calvin Law said...

Oh yeah, and I did it in the previous post too, but another version of Network:

2010s directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Diana: Margot Robbie
Max: Ciaran Hinds
Howard: Martin Short (I actually think this could work out brilliantly)
Frank: Michael Shannon
Jensen: John C. Reilly
Louise: Lesley Manville
The Narrator: Ricky Jay

Bryan L. said...

Calvin: And to top it off...

2000s Network, directed by Spike Jonze

Howard Beale: David Strathairn
Diana Christensen: Cate Blanchett
Max Schumacher: Michael Douglas
Frank Hackett: Kevin Bacon
Arthur Jensen: John C. Reilly
Louise Schumacher: Jane Curtin

Michael McCarthy said...

I’m totally on board for Calvin’s choices for a 2010’s Network, for a 2000’s version I like Bryan’s choices but for Howard I think I’d go with Bill Murray, or maybe even Robin Williams.

Lezlie said...

This was a weird one for me, because I went into this film thinking it was gonna be a comedy, which kinda screwed my perception of it. I mean sure, after a while I realized that no, this is not a comedy at all, and it became easier to watch, but still, I'm gonna need a second viewing without the false perceptions in mind. I really liked Phoenix and loved Reilly though, so I'm happy for their scores.

Bryan L. said...

I'll do a 2010s one while I'm at it

Directed by Armando Ianucci (alt. Inarritu)

Howard Beale: Michael Keaton
Diana Christensen: Jessica Chastain
Max Schumacher: Bryan Cranston (Indeed sounds great)
Frank Hackett: Corey Stoll (Think Black Mass)
Arthur Jensen: John C. Reilly (Reprises role)
Louise: Mary Steenburgen

Luke Higham said...

Happy for Reilly. Wholly deserved.

Now we have the two most anticipated Lead reviews left to go and Hawke had better get his first five which has eluded him for so long. Even when being the last review which isn't always a great sign, I'm sure he'll do it.

Tahmeed Chowdhury said...

The last reviews in the last two years have been Harry Dean Stanton and Andrew Garfield, so I wouldn't say it's a bad thing at all for Hawke :)

Luke Higham said...

Tahmeed: Well, I meant in general with the bonus rounds and even the Oscar reviews. Whoever gets the most #1 votes in predictions tends to be reviewed 2nd from last.

And If I remember correctly, I asked Louis to review Garfield last because everyone knew he'd win that year and really wanted it to end on a very high note.

Calvin Law said...

It’s gonna be a 9 5’s year, I’m sure of it. What’ll be interesting is to see who makes the top 5.

Calvin Law said...

Louis: what are your thoughts on the voice of Owen Wilson.

Calvin Law said...

Also your thoughts on the Rocketman trailer.

Luke Higham said...

I'm beginning to feel at least somewhat hyped for Rocketman.

RatedRStar said...

Is it going to be a regular occurence that there will be a average/decent biopic on a musician every year now lol?

RatedRStar said...

Louis: You thought about playing any games recently? maybe one starring these individuals?

Haley Joel Osment
James Woods
Rutger Hauer
Mark Hamill
Wallace Shawn

Luke Higham said...

RatedRStar: I'm sure he hasn't played a single Kingdom Hearts game. Now I haven't played or even watched III in Cutscene Movie form since I don't have time for Video Games any more but I've read there's no final conclusion to the series which after 13 years of waiting is bloody infuriating.

And I watched AMC's The Terror. I quite loved it. Harris was rather outstanding, Menzies was superb and I loved his character development, Paul Ready is great as a kind doctor and Hinds was very good with a rather harrowing death scene early on in the series. Harris and Menzies are so underrated, I wish they were getting great parts in films.

RatedRStar said...

Luke: Aw I loved Kingdom Hearts 3, there are flaws but most of them are so minor to me that after 13 years since the second game was released which is what 3 feels most closest too in terms of gameplay and story, it was just wonderful, it was like seeing friends you havent seen in a decade lol.

Luke Higham said...

RatedRStar: I'm not one to criticize anything which I haven't seen or played but if they'd given Sora a proper happy ending, the flaws as you've mentioned wouldn't bother me at all.

Bryan L. said...

Louis: Your thoughts on "Tick of the Clock" and "Nightcall" from Drive?

Mitchell Murray said...

Everyone: Thoughts on the trailer for "The Kid"?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KpMZXrRo99g

Personally, I'm worried about the tonal inconsistency shown in the trailer, and I'm worried about Chris Pratt sticking out like a sore thumb, but other than that, it looks intriguing and energetic enough.

Anonymous said...

Louis: Your thoughts on the cinematography and production design of The Prowler (1951).

Calvin Law said...

I think Hawke and especially DeHaan look very promising. Everything else looks meh.

Charles H said...

I dug the trailer. DeHaan and Hawke look good enough. Pratt seems alright but i won't be surprised if he hams out.

Mitchell Murray said...

Oh, your going to like this Calvin - I just posted my review of Lucas Hedges.

Matt Mustin said...

Yeah, I'm sorry, after The Magnificent Seven, I never need to see Chris Pratt in another Western.

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