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(The 2018 Toronto International Film Festival ran September 6-16 in, you guessed it, Toronto, Canada. Hammer to Nail had boots on the ground in the form of lead critic Chris Reed and Matt Delman. Stay tuned as reviews keep rolling in…)

Director Jacques Audiard and The Western are two things synonymous with violence. Audiard won the foreign-language Oscar for his gory Un Prophete, and followed it up with Palme D’or winner Dheepan, which ends in a brutal sequence of vengeance. And although there are plenty of killings in his latest, The Sisters Brothers, it was surprisingly one of the least violent films I saw at Toronto this year. Compare it to Matteo Garrone’s Dogman or Tim Sutton’s Donnybrook and it feels downright tame. Audiard has already given us a film with an extremely realistic botched razorblade assassination, but for this film he’s decided to soften the edges a bit. More buddy comedy than thriller, Audiard’s latest flips Western genre conventions on its head. He’s more interested in the relationship between the titular brothers, Eli (a sensitive John C. Reilly) and his more aggressive, heavy-drinking brother Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix).

Reilly and Phoenix have terrific chemistry as bounty hunters whose reputation precedes them. They are sent to kill a prospector named Hermann (Riz Ahmed) who has developed a new chemical process to separate gold from sediment. The best scenes are not the shootouts but the smaller moments in between. One lovely encounter shows Eli with a prostitute (Allison Tolman) as they role-play at his request. He gives her a shawl and asks her to present it to him. As she hands it over, he specifies, ‘No you need to look at it, then look at me,’ feeding her lines to say about the weather and other domestic concerns. When he strokes her cheek gently she begins to cry, and is moved to warn him about the Madame (Rebecca Root), who is planning his demise.

Jake Gyllenhaal, Rutger Hauer, and Carol Kane round out the superb cast. Kane’s cameo as the brothers’ mother is a real treat, adding more comedic bonafides to the proceedings. Alexandre Desplat’s score is reliably great, as is the cinematography by Benoit Debie, though notably more muted than his colorful work with Gaspar Noe. Working from Patrick DeWitt’s novel, Audiard and his writing partner Thomas Bidegain nail the English dialogue, which can sometimes be tricky for a filmmaker’s first English language film. The lines are often clever, poetic, and most importantly ring true, if not perfectly authentic to the time period.

Audiard explores the multi-dimensional dynamic of brotherhood through the prism of the Western genre. He’s able to mine humor from brotherly bickering, and drama from brotherly love. And in terms of the action sequences, Eli and Charlie dispose of baddies with ease; working together in such harmony you’d think their brains were connected telekinetically. Reilly’s performance is the fulcrum that the film hinges on, with his sensitivity and tenderness radiating through each scene. His joyous wonder in discovering a toothbrush for the first time is a fair comparison to how I felt discovering this gem of a film.

– Matthew Delman (@ItsTheRealDel)

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Matt Delman is the Editor-at-large for Hammer to Nail, spearheading the redesign and relaunch of the site in January 2020. Delman has been a frequent contributor since 2015, with boots on the ground at film festivals across North America. He also runs a boutique digital marketing agency, 3rd Impression, that specializes in social media advertising for independent film. He was recently featured in Filmmaker Magazine for his innovative digital strategies.

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