It’s been a great year for Alexandre Desplat, winning his second Oscar for “The Shape of Water” score and going Japanese for Wes Anderson’s animated “Isle of Dogs.” But with Jacques Audiard’s darkly comic western, “The Sisters Brothers” (September 21, Annapurna) he found himself in uncharted territory and created a spare, subversive score.
“What could I write for a western?,” Desplat said. “Because the movie’s so different, it allows something different. There’s no brass, there is a little jazz combo, but it’s playing something strange, oppressive, dark music. It was a long process of experimentation and trying not to be influenced by Bernstein, by Morricone, by anybody.”
“The Sisters Brothers,” based on the picaresque novel by Patrick deWitt, concerns two notorious assassins, Eli and Charlie Sisters (John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix) on the trail of charming chemist, Warm (Riz Ahmed), who possesses a secret formula for prospecting gold. Warm is also being pursued by effete detective Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal). However, when they finally meet, the foursome partner to test the formula– with dire consequences.
“Having these characters who are losers and trying to understand what life is about reminded me of these westerns that I’ve always liked, ‘The Missouri Breaks,’ ‘Jeremiah Johnson,’ ‘Little Big Man,'” Desplat said. “It could be film noir. And here they’re living a life that is poison and they have to change. It’s about brotherhood, it’s about the desire to improve humanity during a time that was far from the freedoms and values we have today.”
For such an unconventional western, Desplat found musical inspiration in jazz and blues and experimentalist John Cage. He avoided all brass and emphasized prepared piano, timpani drums, a pair of cimbaloms for bass, and electric violin (played by his wife and concert master, Dominique Lemonnier).
“I wanted it to be rooted in the mid-20th century of American music, but from the world of [bassist] Charlie Mingus,” said Desplat. “And at the center is the electric violin, which adds a quirky sound. The textures are almost abstract, ghostly.”
“The Sisters Brothers” theme starts off with a jaunty piano that conjures the image of being chased by horseback. But then the combo kicks in. “It took a long time to find this motif that goes in the chord of C minor 7,” added Desplat.
He scored around the gunshots and long rides, with the only suspenseful music reserved for the tense overture, as low strings set up the violence of the brothers. When the Sisters get to the frenzy of San Francisco, the orchestra appropriately opens up to mark the importance of the moment.
“I didn’t differentiate music for the two pairs,” Desplat said. “I wanted the combo to blend for Eli and Charlie and Morris and Warm because they’re going toward the same path at the end. They’re not antagonists, they’re comrades suffering together and the music becomes one. But I used every opportunity for strangeness because this is a macabre fairy tale.”