THE STORY – In the Old West, an Oregon criminal known as the Commodore sends gunslinging brothers Eli and Charlie Sisters to find and kill chemist Hermann Warm and retrieve his moneymaking formula. Complications soon arise when John Morris, a detective who is supposed to help the siblings, joins forces with Hermann for a business venture.
THE CAST – John C. Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix, Jake Gyllenhaal, Riz Ahmed & Rutger Hauer
THE TEAM – Jacques Audiard (Director/Writer) & Thomas Bidegain (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 121 Minutes
By Beatrice Loayza
Boys will be boys in this unexpected turn for the first English-language feature film of Jacques Audiard, the director of such internationally-lauded films as “Dheepan” and “A Prophet.” Make no mistake, while “The Sisters Brothers” is certainly more commercial than his past films, it still bears the signature marks of Audiard’s cinema, his curiosity, his inclination towards innovation, and his subversion of genre– only packaged into a film that audiences will love. “The Sisters Brothers” is a crowd-pleasing and comedic entry into a stunning corpus, proving yet again that Audiard is one of the most interesting working directors of our time.
Adapted from the book of the same name by Patrick deWitt, “The Sisters Brothers” follows the hitmen Eli (John C. Reilly) and Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix) Sisters, a pair of blood-bound brothers known for their brutal and efficient executions of their contracts. The brothers could certainly hold their own should they ever go toe-to-toe with Clint Eastwood, but unlike the glorified masculine characters so common within the genre, the Sisters brothers wear their childhood traumas on their sleeves. Eli, the sentimental and contemplative one of the two, dreams of leaving the family business and opening up his own shop. He cares for things– for his little brother and his horse, even his oral hygiene. Charlie, on the other hand, relishes his lifestyle, seeing it as an appropriate analog to his scarred and rage-filled inner state, while sex and booze do a fine job of recompensing.
Sent out on contract by the mysterious “Commodore,” the two go in search of a man who goes by the curious name of Hermann Kermit Warm (played by a very well-cast Riz Ahmed), a sanguine prospector that knows a secret chemical formula that supposedly expedites the gold-mining process, and who has dreams of establishing a new, utopian society in Dallas. Warm is accompanied by John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), a bounty hunter who is originally tasked with bringing Warm to his killers, but who undergoes a change of heart thanks to the attractive and starry-eyed business prospects so championed by Warm. Gyllenhaal’s hoity-toity accent is a bit off-putting, but he plays his pretentious and guarded character with care, and the chemistry he and Ahmed had in “Nightcrawler” is put to great use again with this pairing.
As Audiard noted in a Q and A at the Toronto International Film Festival, the main reference point for “The Sisters Brothers” is actually Charles Laughton’s 1955 thriller “The Night Of The Hunter.” Like that classic film, “The Sisters Brothers” plays out like a sort of fairytale as told through the perspective of children, or in this case large adult sons, living in the feverish and violent dog-eat-dog world of the Old West. There is plenty of nervous laughter to go around, as the brothers ride from town to town murdering dozens of collateral victims that have gotten in their way or are seeking some sort of long-gone vengeance from victims past, and Audiard never shies away from showing the bloody entrails this leaves behind.
Yet “The Sisters Brothers” is insistently playful, even heart-warming, and perhaps the most sentimental Western featuring hitmen ever made (certainly since “In Bruges”). Though such an outcome should rarely come as a shock considering Audiard’s penchant for writing beautifully detailed and complex characters. A star-studded cast also doesn’t hurt, all four of whose characters often reveal a boyish glint in their eyes– Warm the dreamer, Morris the father-rejecting intellectual, Charlie the deeply troubled youngest son.
Reilly’s Eli, however, is the heart of “The Sisters Brothers,” and the anchoring point through which the film’s questions about morality, responsibility, and masculinity shine through in stunning colors. The Sisters brothers are never innocent like children, but they are emotionally raw, bound to their worst qualities, reckless and traumatized and still struggling to manage what a damaged childhood has made of them– all of which makes for a surprisingly emotionally substantial romp through the Old West. Jacques Audiard mentioned in his Q and A that he never would’ve imagined making a Western, but thanks to some egging on by Reilly himself, “The Sisters Brothers” came to fruition– and we should all be delighted for it.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – Funny, violent, and full of heart, the latest effort by Jacques Audiard has something for everyone. More thoughtful than your average Western, this film has beautifully drawn out characters played by a star-studded cast led by a particularly great John C. Reilly and offers a narrative twist and shift of tone towards the end of the film that pays off.