Movie Review: The Sisters Brothers.
Somber, violent, disjointed and occasionally funny, The Sisters Brothers is as inexplicable a film as its name suggests.
Critical darling and French auteur Jacques Audiard raised eyebrows when it was announced his first English language film would be a Western. The most quintessentially American genre is tilted and twisted by Audiard’s sensibilities, but remains fundamentally recognizable. Rather than a departure from his earlier, character driven pieces like The Prophet or Rust and Blood, The Sisters Brothers is a ten gallon hat and set of spurs costume change for much of the same introspection. The story is littered with cowboy shibboleths, from brothels to whiskey bars, gunfights and horse chases; you get all of the classic canon, just through the kaleidoscope of a new perspective. It can get a bit bizarre, but the drama hits home thanks to a fantastic ensemble cast featuring John C. Reilly.
The Sisters Brothers (2018).
Eli (John C. Reilly) and Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix) Sisters are brothers and hired guns. The Commodore (Rutger Hauer), their boss, directs them to find and punish a chemist who stole from him. Following a trail of letters left by the Commodore’s scout, Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), they race across the Oregon wilderness to intercept the mild-mannered chemist (Riz Ahmed) before he can get to California. Along the way, Eli, the more level headed brother, begins to question their violent way of life and the truthfulness of their employer.
Curiosities and Oddities.
The source novel of the same name is considered a dark picaresque: roughs characters living by their wits, narrating an adventure that winds up being more like discrete episodes than a grand saga. Audiard’s film does adhere to that structure, with John C. Reilly’s character being the lens. Often, he’s quite literally the lens as several shots appear to be in first person (I don’t think these shots work quite as intended as they are confusing and mostly interrupt the narrative flow.)
There is a skeleton of a classic Western plot that Audiard hangs vignettes off of. For all of the bloody gunfights and melodrama of the pursuit, The Sisters Brothers really lives and breathes on the smaller day to day drama of two brothers. It’s a bit like Pulp Fiction where the violence and absurdity is background staging for the conversations and arm-chair philosophizing between the characters.
See John C. Go.
To that end, this film crucially relies on its leads. Luckily John C. Reilly delivers in spades. He’s an able killer, but quiet and affable. His contentious but loving relationship with Phoenix’ Charlie gives the events a grounded reality. He also has several touching scenes with supporting characters such as Riz Ahmed and Allison Tolman. He even has fantastic moments caring for his sick horse. For a picaresque to work, you have to be in sympathy with the characters and Reilly does a fantastic job of drawing you in and letting everyone around him shine. While there is humor to his performance (watching Eli discover brushing his teeth for the first time is a treat!) don’t go in expecting buffoonery; Reilly is charming but also serious in this outing.
The rest of the cast is strong, but not too far outside of their comfort zones. Joaquin Phoenix has made his mark playing damaged and volatile characters, and his portrayal of Charlie is right in that wheelhouse. He does benefit from a good chemistry with Reilly, but Charlie really does feel like the lesser brother whose importance is in his mercurial actions. Likewise, Jake Gyllenhaal is adept at playing aloof voyeurs with strong nihilistic streaks, and that describes Morris to a T. The big standout comes from Riz Ahmed, who gives a moving performance as the idealistic but pessimistic Hermann Warm. The role could easily been a plot convenience, but Ahmed turns in a subtle and emotional performance that nearly steals the focus from the brothers.
Blood, Guns, and Absurdity in the West.
The Sisters Brothers’ appeal is unfortunately limited. Much like Bad Times at the El Royale, it is a niche genre film elevated by fantastic ensemble acting. Unlike that film, Audiard’s offering may be a bit too weird for most audiences. It is dark and moody with a jaundiced view of life that is only lightly ameliorated by the ending. The final act of the film itself seems calculated to toss fans of the cowboy drama from their horse. It certainly doesn’t deliver any catharsis!
If you like personal dramas and the American Western as a concept, then this film is going to work for you. Despite a few odd cinematic choices, it does deliver a sweeping visual style and grand vistas. The film doesn’t satire its six-gun elements, delivering thunderous shoot-outs and tense stand-offs. It is thoroughly a Western, just one where the scope has been shrunk down to the intensely personal. It is so finely acted that I enjoyed my time with it. It just misses a firm recommendation because of some off-putting stylistic choices.