Thursday, February 7, 2019

On Blu-ray/DVD: THE SISTERS BROTHERS (2018) and THE GUILTY (2018)

(US/France/Germany/Spain/Romania/Belgium - 2018)

The $40 million revisionist western THE SISTERS BROTHERS was an expensive flop when it opened in theaters in the fall of 2018 and grossed just $3 million. An unmarketable art-house offering that had no business being sold as commercial multplex fare, it's the English-language debut of acclaimed French filmmaker Jacques Audiard (THE BEAT THAT MY HEART SKIPPED, A PROPHET, RUST AND BONE) and is based on a 2011 novel by Patrick deWitt. It was a long-gestating pet project for star John C. Reilly, who acquired the movie rights immediately after the book was published. It took Reilly six years and funding from six countries to finally get the film made, and with picturesque exteriors shot in Romania and the old spaghetti western stomping grounds of Almeria, Spain, cinematography by the great Benoit Debie, a score by Alexandre Desplat, and costume design by the legendary Milena Canonero, the money and the prestige are certainly up there on the screen. But the story is so sluggish and its intent so indecisive that the film never quite catches fire despite some excellent work by Reilly and his co-stars. Opening in 1851 Oregon during the Gold Rush, the story has sibling gunslingers Eli (Reilly) and Charlie Sisters (Joaquin Phoenix) assigned by their powerful robber baron boss The Commodore (Rutger Hauer, wasted in a silent cameo and seen only briefly through a window) to track down Kermit Herman Warm (Riz Ahmed), a chemist he claims has stolen something valuable from him. The Commodore already has another regulator, John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), on Warm's trail, but the Sisters brothers are perpetually several days behind, due in large part to Charlie's heavy drinking. Eli is skeptical of the work they do for The Commodore, not really buying that so many people steal from someone so feared. Indeed, Warm has stolen nothing from The Commodore: he's invented a formula for a chemical that illuminates gold deposits when poured into a body of water, and he's got an investor in California ready to buy it from him, while The Commodore simply wants to steal it--and eliminate Warm altogether--for his own plentiful financial gain. The Sisters brothers eventually catch up with Morris and Warm, forming an uneasy alliance brought about largely by their collective loathing of The Commodore, but in particular, it's Eli who wants something different, even suggesting to Charlie that they ditch their outlaw life and "maybe open a store" (Charlie: "A store? What fucking store?!"). The good-hearted Eli longs to better himself, and Reilly really captures that sentiment in a wonderful little moment when he sees that the more sophisticated and erudite Morris also uses a toothbrush, a new and rare commodity in these environs that Eli just acquired but hasn't quite mastered.

THE SISTERS BROTHERS looks great and it's obvious that Reilly put his heart and soul into it, but maybe Audiard just wasn't the right guy for the job. He's made some terrific films, but this one can't really commit to being anything. It's too slow and dour to be a comedy, but it's also too offbeat and quirky with their bickering and brawling to be a serious western, trying to have it both ways and succeeding at neither. Both stars have worked multiple times with Paul Thomas Anderson (Reilly in HARD EIGHT, BOOGIE NIGHTS, and MAGNOLIA, and Phoenix in THE MASTER and INHERENT VICE), and I kept thinking that Anderson might've been more suited to what this seems to be going after as an introspective character piece about brotherly bonds and family trauma that stems from their abusive father. In the end, it's a noble, well-intentioned misfire that never really pulls itself together, and they seriously could've used a cardboard cutout of Rutger Hauer for as little as he's required to do in his scant seconds of screen time. (R, 121 mins)

(Denmark - 2018)

Thrillers set in one location are always tricky to pull off, largely because the filmmakers often can't wait to get away from that specific location. It's hard to not recall the acclaimed Tom Hardy-in-a-car film LOCKE while watching the Danish thriller THE GUILTY. It's also reminiscent of the Halle Berry 911 thriller THE CALL, but with the patience and the discipline to stay in one place and, more importantly, with one person. Jakob Cedergren is on camera from the beginning to the end as Asger Holm, who's working as an emergency services dispatcher. Debuting director and co-writer Gustav Moller very deliberately fills in the pieces of Asger's back story as the film proceeds, but what we know up front is that he's a Copenhagen cop and he's been temporarily busted down to emergency dispatch for undisclosed disciplinary reasons. He's nearing the end of his shift, and he displays a visible impatience bordering on contempt--for the callers, his colleagues, and generally everything. He scoffs at a guy needing an ambulance because he's tripping on speed, and almost openly mocks a caller who was mugged by a hooker in the red light district. But then a call comes from a woman that caller ID lists as Iben Ostergard (voice of Jessica Dinnage). She's talking to Asger but pretending to talk to her daughter. Asger quickly deduces that she's been abducted and she's in a moving vehicle. He notifies the nearest precinct of her approximate location, then calls her home number to talk to her young daughter Mathilde (voice of Katinka Evers-Jahnsen). She's home alone with her infant brother and tells Asger that her parents had a fight and that Mommy (Iben) left with Daddy. Checking the records of Iben's estranged husband Michael, Asger discovers he's a convicted felon with a history of assault. Despite everyone--from his supervisor to the dispatchers at various precincts--telling him that he's done his job and they'll take it from here, the detective in Asger can't let it go. He calls his partner Rashid (voice of Omar Shargawi) and has him go to Michael's address to look for clues. Cops think they found the vehicle Iben is in, but it's a false alarm. The another team of cops arrive at Iben's house and are met with a shocking discovery. And all of this plays out with Asger listening in on a headset and staying on the line.

About 30 minutes in, Asger moves from his work station into a private office, which allows other developments to come to light. Why is he taking such an intense interest in this? Is he just that dedicated to his job? Will it get him out of the doghouse with his bosses? Is it a distraction from an oft-mentioned court appearance scheduled for the next morning? Why is a reporter calling him on his phone? Moller does an exemplary job with what essentially unfolds in real time, though specific time is never referenced nor a clock ever shown. It just feels like real time without the gimmick of drawing attention to itself. THE GUILTY is the kind of film that you find yourself watching with palpable tension and baited breath to the point where even the sound of vibrating phone is enough to put you on edge. It's like an 85-minute anxiety attack, especially when everything Asger does to help the situation in his take-charge fashion inevitably ends up making it worse. This wouldn't be nearly as effective as it is if not for the sure-handed vision of Moller and the riveting performance of Cedergren, who's logged a lot of time on Scandinavian TV (he co-starred in the original Danish version of the series THE KILLING) and is probably best known to foreign film enthusiasts for the 2008 black comedy TERRIBLY HAPPY. THE GUILTY got a good amount of acclaim during its limited US theatrical run, but nobody saw it. It's waiting to be discovered on Blu-ray and eventually streaming, and it wouldn't be at all surprising if it got a neutered Hollywood remake--which would likely have Asger ditching the dispatch center 15 minutes in and going on a city-wide rampage himself to find Iben--but this under-the-radar gem is a tightly-wound, expertly-constructed, and extremely well-played exercise in stomach-knotting tension. (R, 88 mins)

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