Jacques Audiard’s latest film is his first for Hollywood. And for it he takes on one of US cinema’s staples—the Western—and puts his own spin on it.
The result is a parable which veers between brutality and poignant insight, but never comes off the rails.
John C Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix play two brothers, Eli and Charlie Sisters, in the 1850s US West.
They are on the trail of chemist Hermann Kermit Warm—played by Riz Ahmed—on the orders of their boss The Commodore. They are to torture and kill Warm, but don’t know why.
Also pursuing the chemist is private detective John Morris, played by Jake Gyllenhall.
Warm wants to set up “a society where the relationships among men aren’t governed by profit” with the proceeds from a discovery he has made. It’s a discovery that has made him a wanted man.
“This world is an abomination,” he says, raging against armed men being sent to kill and torture him.
All the pieces are set up nicely for a series of catastrophic events that blow apart all the characters’ ideas
Each character is twisted in one way or another by the society they live in.
Morris dreams of going back to a fantasy version of a time when the capitalist system was not spreading across the West.
“Scarcely did I ever want to change such hours of freedom with all the hours of civilisation,” he writes.
Charlie embraces the brutality of his life as an assassin and bosses’ stooge, mocking anyone who thinks it can be any different. Meanwhile Eli dreams of leaving The Commodore’s service, settling down and opening a shop.
All the pieces are set up nicely for a series of catastrophic events that blow apart all the characters’ ideas.
Morris and Warm’s utopian fantasies are cruelly ripped away, Eli is forced to give up his dreams and take on the burden of fighting off The Commodore’s henchmen.
The characters in this film are detailed and interesting. The dialogue avoids the cliches of the genre.
It’s a well-balanced narrative, moving briskly when it needs to and moving slowly when it needs to do that as well.
And the cinematography is well judged. Familiar wide shots of the landscape of the western US are mixed with claustrophobic close-ups so we’re not left with a romantic fantasy.
This is a superior Western which taps into a lot of the same themes as Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will be Blood.
It’s about how the dehumanising logic of capitalism brutalises everything it touches. But it’s also about the possibility of redemption.