43rd Toronto International Film Festival — Day 6 : A West Turn

The latest to gravitate towards a Western is French director Jacques Audiard

Written by Shubhra Gupta | Published: September 13, 2018 1:13:08 am

A still from Jacques Audiard’s The Sisters Brothers

When tales are told with simplicity, everything flows — the most complex emotions are revealed, each shiny, dusty layer coming up for air, and the most complicated situations are shown up for what they are. When this happens at the movies, everything becomes memorable.

Given his record (A Prophet, Dheepan, Rust and Bone) you’d think the intensely French Jacques Audiard would be the last director to gravitate towards a Western. Its conventions of slow-speaking cowboys, their camaraderie with their horses, their inability to really open up to other humans, but their constant quest for connection, has been the stuff of great Westerns, whether it is in novels or films.

The genre has been seeing some sort of a revival in the past decade in Hollywood. Audiard’s first English language film could well have been a misfire but The Sisters Brothers is quite a marvel. Audiard enters this world displaying a fine balance of familiarity and an eagerness to explore, focusing on tiny details that several American directors may take for granted. This makes the telling fresh — faces which fill the screen, characters that fill those vast empty spaces where cowboys roam, and a rhythm that rolls you up with it.

It is 1851, and the gold rush is in full swing. We see the wildness of the Wild, Wild West as two siblings set out to Sierra Nevada on a mission to hunt and kill. John C Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix play brothers who have been commissioned to assassinate a prospector, played by Riz Ahmed, who is in turn being hunted by Jake Gyllenhaal. All four principal actors look as if they were born to the saddle. They ride, cook, hunt, and we ride alongside, flinching when they take a bullet or lose a limb.

And what’s a Western without a shootout: there is a standout one. Reilly is sublime as the dour, doughy-faced cowboy who is the protector of the younger, hot-headed Phoenix. And Ahmed and Gyllehaal give them good company.

The same quality of keeping it simple underlines and elevates First Man, in which director Damien Chazelle gets back with his La La Land leading man Ryan Gosling. The challenge in telling the story of Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, was always going to be in keeping it new. And Chazelle does that by making Gosling’s Armstrong the most vulnerable human in space.

Soon into the film, Armstrong loses his young daughter. Sorrow is an ever-present thing on his face, and that of the face of his wife, played by Claire Foy. You can sense that this is a man with purpose, strength and determination — qualities which can take you to the moon and back — but you can also get the feeling that he will never quite be able to forget that loss.

Chazelle gives us the machines, as he pieces together the arduous journey of the first man: the brave men in the mission who lose their lives in the line of duty, the creation of the capsules, the space suits, the initial failures. But he is careful not to drown us with science. He keeps the humanity of his protagonist in full view, when he takes that first, heart-stopping step on to the moon, but even more so, when he returns, back to earth, back to his wife, and his life.

Sebastian Lelio’s remaking of his own 2013 Chilean language Gloria Bell into English, marks the crossing over of another director to Hollywood. Like Audiard, Lelio puts his distinctive stamp on the material, which in itself would not find place in mainstream Hollywood, where older women rarely, if ever, get to bend and order a narrative.

These flavours and insights are clearly coming from directors who think and work in languages other than English. Lelio’s shot-by-shot remake is nearly as good as his original, especially because it is Julianne Moore who plays the lead. As a divorced woman in her late 50s, who discovers that there is a life beyond her husband and her grown-up children who have no time for her, she is superb.

You can be happy, if you choose to be. It is that simple.

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