Coming from Jacques Audiard, director of the excellent-if-choppy RUST AND BONE and 2015 TAKE ONE Award winner DHEEPAN, THE SISTERS BROTHERS is the latest in a line of revival Westerns to take a slightly different approach to the genre. An uneven tone robs the film of a bit of momentum and coherence, but the lead performances and Audiard’s proven visual skill mean it never falls out of the saddle.
John C Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix play the Sisters Brothers, Eli and Charlie respectively (two brothers, surname Sisters, for all the budding apostrophe detectives out there). Working for Oregon City crime lord The Commodore (a briefly menacing Rutger Hauer), they are tasked with taking down chemist Hermann Warm (Riz Ahmed). The more ‘refined ‘John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal) is sent ahead of them to do the detective work, rather than the gunslinging and physical battery that is the brothers’ speciality. The interactions of these characters against the backdrop of gold-rush America (Warm apparently has a chemical formula for divining it) drive much of the interest, as they chase each other across the American West.
THE SISTERS BROTHERS certainly starts with a bang, both literal and in a metaphorical sense, with visually impressive start. A long shot of a cabin against the cerulean sky and a pitch black foreground is brutally and quickly illuminated by the gunfire of the Sisters brothers taking out yet another target for The Commodore. It’s a striking image and one that the film probably doesn’t better, but the film shifts primarily to the characters, using Audiard’s imagery as more of a supporting player than a showy lead.
“John C Reilly plays Eli with the exact sort of everyman incredulity that one would hope for him in the role. An elongated vowel of disbelief here, a slight slump of the shoulders there.”
John C Reilly plays Eli with the exact sort of everyman incredulity that one would hope for him in the role. A palpable frustration with the continuing drunken violent antics of his brother are delivered with a sardonic weariness that conveys years of this in off-screen history. An elongated vowel of disbelief here, a slight slump of the shoulders there. Phoenix is as engaging as ever, and Audiard has immense enjoyment placing his concentrated and threatening face under moonlight and in all varieties of situations. Gyllenhaal, although more gentile, conveys a contempt for the more coarse brothers with grins and raised eyebrows. Riz Ahmed arguable has the hardest job as Hermann Warm, showing he must get by with the help of more brutal men to protect his intellectual gifts.
If there are any complaints, then – despite the period setting and, perhaps, the source material providing some cover – the film is hilariously male-dominated. Allison Tolman is utterly wasted in a brief nameless role, playing a prostitute used as a cipher to display Eli’s warmer core. It is not a scene that is really needed, given the performance of Reilly elsewhere, and although Tolman’s role (an actor with such skill shown in the Fargo TV series) is hardly in a place to be expanded, it is symbolic of this aspect of the film. The coda (again featuring a woman in a bit-part role) feels a little tacked on, perhaps bringing a piece of the story beyond full circle.
“Audiard seems a strange fit for this adaptation of Patrick DeWitt’s novel, but his visual skills mean the film is elevated above a mere rat-a-tat between leads.”
Described as dark comedy, the laughs come mainly from the character interplay, with Coen-esque sounding names and mannerisms. Having said that, there is a bit of further substance amongst the sniping. Hermann Warm dreams of a society that operates “in the absence of profit”, and instead focuses on “its spiritual development”. There is an irony, therefore, that he is undone by the assistance of the very men whose greed drives his desire to establish such a community. The brothers attempts to either get out of this life or better themselves, and nearly killing themselves getting there, highlights the corrosive effect of the lust for more in American society (particularly during this period). Eli’s horse is the metaphorical vessel for this element of the film’s thematic drives. When confronted with gold-rush-era San Francisco, Charlie is not blown away by the city’s atmosphere or development, merely by what he could get away with in its urban anonymity.
THE SISTERS BROTHERS never quite makes you sit up in wide-eyed engagement with the screen. It is, however, held together by the lead performances – all varying shades of humour, wit, arrogance, longing, and optimism. Audiard seems a strange fit for this adaptation of Patrick DeWitt’s novel, but his visual skills mean the film is elevated above a mere rat-a-tat between leads. It is slightly ill-fitting suit of great materials he has tailored, but inside is an enjoyable yarn and captivating characters.