(director/writer: Jacques Audiard; screenwriters: novel by Patrick Dewitt/Thomas Bidegain; cinematographer: Benoît Debie; editor: Juliette Welfling; music: Alexandre Desplat; cast: Riz Ahmed (Hermann Kermit Warm), Joaquin Phoenix (Charlie Sisters), John C. Reilly (Eli Sisters), Jake Gyllenhaal (John Morris), Carol Kane (Mrs. Sisters), Rutger Hauer (The Commodore), Rebecca Root (Mayfield), Allison Tollman (Girl Mayfield Saloon); Runtime: 121; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Pascal Caucheteux, Michael De Luca, Alison Dickey, Megan Ellison, Michel Merkt, Cristian Mungiu, John C. Reilly, Grégoire Sorlat; Annapurna Pictures; 2018)

“A cut above most westerns.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The English language debut from the fine humanist French filmmaker Jacques Audiard (“Rust and Bone”/”A Prophet”) and his unique but meandering western, about how the lure of gold can turn a man away from his better values. It’s based on the 2011 novel by Patrick Dewitt and is adapted to the screen by Thomas Bidegain and the director. Audiard won the Silver Lion as Best Director at the Venice Film Festival. The drunken cynical wastrel Charlie Sisters (Joaquin Phoenix) and his wide-eyed romantic more accepting of the modern world’s new outlooks older brother Eli (John C. Reilly) are the main protagonists. The siblings are squabbling bad dudes living in 1851, during the Gold Rush, as gunslingers for hire. Their behind the scenes boss is called the Commodore (Rutger Hauer). He orders the boys to deal with a Middle-Eastern chemist, Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed). The mild-mannered foreigner invented a solution that highlights gold nuggets in the river that makes it easier for prospectors. The orders are for the boys to come off their mountain retreat in Oregon and go to San Francisco (filmed in Spain and Romania) to get his magic formula, even if it means torturing him and killing him. Charlie has no problem with the order, but Eli does. Meanwhile the boss hired the well-educated and prissy private detective John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal) to track down and turn the chemist over to them. When he does catch up with the chemist, he’s intrigued by his product and the four decide to go partners. The Commodore responds to being betrayed by sending gunslingers after them. The narrative may follow the trail of other similar themed films about the power gold has in the Old West, such as in the classic The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, but Audiard’s film goes off in its own direction. It uses dark comedy and violence and the fickleness of relationships to show how the Old West was a place where one had to make peace with both oneself and with their surroundings before they can live in harmony in the world like a man should.If nothing else this is a lushly photographed film with an inventive narrative that’s laden with sharp dialogue, and it’s also finely acted. It’s a tale to ponder about men without women, who are sad and lonely and are living an empty life, but who can change for the better if they are willing to. It was most enjoyable as an offbeat western: a cut above most westerns.