Digging for Treasure: The Sisters Brothers and The Song of Sway Lake

(Annapurna Pictures)

We will always look for gold in them that hills. Two new releases chronicle very different journeys to that end.

French director Jacques Audiard has a knack for the shaggy and unstable, whether it’s the Sri Lankan immigrants of Dheepan trying to navigate suburban Paris, or Marion Cotillard running afoul of the killer whales she trains in Rust and Bone. For The Sisters Brothers, his first English-language feature, he looks to an especially unkempt and volatile period: The Wild West. Typically unpredictable and uneven, it doesn’t completely take off, but Audiard finds gore and even a few grace notes in his American myth.

Basd on the book by Patrick Dewitt, the movie follows Eli and Charlie Sisters (John C. Riley and Joaquin Phoenix),  bounty hunters in 1850s Oregon on the hunt for Kermit (Riz Ahmed), who claims to have developed a formula that makes it easier to pan for gold. Scout John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal) tracks down the elusive prospector first and at first plans to honor his agreement to hand him over to the brothers. But he has his own plans.

The brothers’ relationship is at the center of the movie; Charlie has the hot temper, while Eli, the older sibling, really just wants to go home. Despite the vicious blood shed by the brothers, Riley manages to make Eli sensitive and sympathetic; it’s kind of moving to watch him learn how to use a toothbrush and turn his self-consciousness into a measure of self-improvement, however small. In a reference to The Innocents, a spider crawls into Eli’s open mouth while he’s sleeping, corrupting the innocent and making his face swell up when he starts reacting to its bite.

But Phoenix seems to have less to do here; Audiard’s script, co-written with Thomas Bidegain, doesn’t develop the selfish brute much beyond the hard-drinking bad seed. Gyllenhaal is more effective as the curious and better-written Morris. More culturally refined, his is a more intriguing side of the Gold Rush, as the greedy sophisticate seems more conflicted than a pair of rugged mercenaries. His arc has more potential, but Riz Ahmed’s character also seems undercooked. Is he a snake-oil dealing hustler, a fish out of water, or a clever technician? There’s a more vivid character here, and if Ahmed avoids turning Kermit into caricature, he also doesn’t make him rise much above a breathing MacGuffin.

For all its violence, The Sisters Brothers is strongest in its quiet moments, when the search for gold becomes a kind of treacherous dream and the brothers reach their final destination. It has its missteps, and if you come looking for Rutger Hauer, you’ll be disappointed-; though he plays The Commodore, the boss man who dispatches the brothers on their hunt, he doesn’t have any speaking lines.

The Sisters Brothers
Written and directed by Jacques Audiard
With John C. Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix, Jake Gyllenhaal, Riz Ahmed, and the body of Rutger Hauer.
Rated R for violence including disturbing images, language, and some sexual content.
121 minutes.


(The Orchard)

A heist movie in which the priceless booty is a rare 78 rpm record? The Song of Sway Lake is a siren song to a fairly specific demographic. Writer-director Ari Gold spins this personal tale just well enough to steer it (a little) from its maudlin course. It gets its period music about right and paints a lovely portrait of its august matron; today’s kids, however, are less convincing.

After the death of his father, a record collector who helped develop his son’s musical tastes, Ollie Sway (Rory Culkin) breaks into his grandmother’s lakeside house to look for a valuable record: “The Song of Sway Lake,” popularized by a female vocal group, but, in its original version, a raw and legendary document, reportedly.

The tranquil lake was named for Ollie’s family, but developers threaten to shake up its waters with jet-skis and young ruffians. Ollie doesn’t much care about that; he and his friend Nikolai (Robert Sheehan, in the role of Balki) just want to hang out and hit on the local girls, like Isadora (Isabelle McNally).

When Ollie’s grandmother Charlie (Mary Beth Peil) shows up, she hopes to find the record too–its sale would help keep her going in the fight to save Sway Lake.

Most viewers probably won’t get a charge out of watching Ollie look through his dad’s records looking for gold and reminiscing. But that conflicted relationship with the dusty past has more going for it than some of the human interaction; What exactly does Ollie see in Isadora, after all? The matron is far more intriguing, and the movie gets weird when she realizes that her grandson’s friend with the strained Russian accent is a dead ringer for her late husband. (Gold does know how to direct a kiss, though).

The eagle-eyed may be surprised to see Jon Hassel and Fred Frith in the closing credits; the experimental  music figures perform on the score by Ethan Gold–director Ari’s brother. A strange and personal family affair with a good soundtrack, The Song of Sway Lake manages to stay afloat long enough to be mildly enchanting, but I wouldn’t blame anybody for rolling their eyes over it.

The Song of Sway Lake
Directed by Ari Gold
Written by Elizabeth Bull and Ari Gold
With Rory Culkin, Robert Sheehan, Isabelle McNally, and Mary Beth Peil
Rated R for language, graphic nudity and some sexual content
100 minutes.

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