GO FOR SISTERS is a crime thriller with the safety on

Rating: ★★★
John Sayles. Keepin’ it real since 1979. Even if he’s the only one who still knows it.
Slightly up from 2010’s Amigo, but far from his best, for one thing, Go For Sisters has a great title, snatched from a line of dialogue between former school friends Bernice and Fontayne, now on opposite sides of the law, where one is a parole officer, the other a recovering drug addict: “We could go for sisters.” It also boasts a delicately discerning pair of lead performances from LisaGay Hamilton and Yolonda Ross (deservedly nominated for an Independent Spirit Award), both projecting private pains, the regrets of where life has taken them and a quietly dignified survivalism.

It opens with a wryly affecting bait-and-switch. One of Bernice’s ‘clients’ has violated her parole after being busted at a party rife with drug paraphernalia and the sort who peddle it. Katrina is outraged, insisting she’s been clean for weeks and was only responding to a phone call from a distressed friend, with no idea his apartment was presently full of lowlifes. It’s a passionate, convincing outburst from actress Tessa Ferrer (who on the basis of these two minutes should be getting more work), and anyone whose ever sat across from an authority figure having to explain themselves might be inclined to believe her. Bernice writes Katrina up for a court hearing anyway, her weary, almost wordless refusal of her client’s protests suggesting she hasn’t survived so long in this job by being soft. Turning to the office newbie and blankly telling her to “expect at least six of these a day” sets Bernice up as a hard ass, but this attitude is quickly reversed when Fontayne walks into her office and Bernice can’t help but see the despairing struggles of an old friend instead of a case number. Cut a break, Fontayne promises to return the favour, and though she wonders aloud at what she might possibly be able to offer now that they each now live in such very different worlds, Bernice ends up needing her help much sooner than expected.


The narrative set-up of two people thrown together when one is assigned to the case of the other, the (re)forming of tentative bonds and growing mutual respect, is reminiscent of one of the great indies of recent years, This is Martin Bonner, while the ‘streetlight’ style of Kat Westergaard’s photography and laid back patter masking a complex set of negotiations, is right across 110 street from Jackie Brown. With great walk-on roles for both Harold Perrineau and Isaiah Washington, the first forty-five minutes sees Sayles back on career-best form, but sadly, this initial promise peters out once the one-time sisters cross the Mexican border to find Bernice’s son (McKinley Belcher III), who’s mixed up with some immigrant traffickers from Fontayne’s neighbourhood, where the two options are minimum wage or some form of criminal activity—the latter more often than not encouraged by the former.

Like Robert Altman and his way of making the most low-key form of any genre you care to think of, Go For Sisters is a crime thriller with the safety on, that privileges performance over action but overstates the involvement of an ex-cop riding shotgun (Edward James Olmos), a prescence whose undue focus diffuses some of the interest and involvement in the core relationship. Alternately tense and wandering, a third act ‘slow car chase’ summarises the film’s arbitrary approach. It’s both a superb set piece and a subversive send up of formula, the likes of which has not seen since Way of the Gun.

Sayles has neither the respect or clout to get films made anymore. His methods and the demand for his style of storytelling no longer exist, even in the crevices of the current industry landscape. The unforgiving world of VoD has been unkind to to this trailblazing auteur, once thought of on the level of a Steven Soderbergh or Richard Linklater but pre-figuring both in terms of US indie scene influence. Now lost in the iTunes shuffle, Sayles is seemingly one film away from a kickstarter campaign, along with other faded nineties giants like Hal Hartley and Spike Lee. With his output more infrequent than ever, for the dedicated fan, each new offering has become even more of an event than the times of Matewan, City of Hope and Lone Star that warranted talked-up big screen releases and feature articles in Sight & Sound (nowadays, he’d be lucky to make the mag’s ‘in development’ section). With waning interest in his work, it’s not a stretch for me to predict that if the Hollywood script doctoring gigs ever dry up, Sayles might soon bail on cinema for TV, where the piercing sensitivity of his craft might be better appreciated. For now though, those of us who care deeply about truly independent cinema can just be glad that this American icon is still making movies on his own terms, whilst walking his own beaten path.

 First published by Vérité Film Magazine on January 17, 2015


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