When it comes to western movies, hardened, gravely-voiced gunslingers and classic Mexican standoffs come to mind for most, I’m sure. While we’re certainly gifted with a gun-toting brotherly duo, The Sisters Brothers offers a lot more than simple shootouts.
Adapted from Patrick Dewitt’s 2011 novel of the same name, we follow assassins Eli (John C. Reilly) and Charlie Sisters (Joaquin Phoenix) in 1850’s Oregon, who are assigned by their mysterious boss known only as the Commodore (Rutger Hauer) to track down a thief named Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed). However, the Sisters’ aren’t the only ones on Warm’s trail, with another of the Commodore’s scouts—John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal)—having already tracked him down. And in fact, Warm is not a thief, but a chemist who’s perfected a chemical formula that can make gold glow in riverbanks—making him extremely valuable.
We can see the brothers’ rapport within the first few minutes of them taking out targets at a farmhouse in the film’s stunningly shot cold open. Charlie is the perennially drunk overconfident jokester of the duo, with the sinister line of work they’re in suiting him fine. Eli on the other hand is the far more introverted and emotionally reserved of the two. He’s a world-weary assassin who simply does his job to get to the next day and make ends meet.
In a great showing of actors playing against type, it’s not Phoenix as the emotionally introverted brother, a role which he so perfectly executed in last year’s You Were Never Really Here. Reilly—a great comedic actor who people all too often forget is also a great dramatic actor—nails the vulnerable Eli. Having said that, Reilly gets some fun moments of comedy, specifically when he emphatically brushes his teeth for the first time. Phoenix displays his unsurprisingly fantastic range, showing that he’s adept at comedic timing.
You would think a film with a duo of assassins leading the action would be a bombastic, spectacle-filled western, but just like Eli himself, this is a far more reserved picture than what it lets on. Instead of endless shootouts, writer-director Jacques Audiard is far more interested in dissecting the love-hate relationship between the titular brothers. Throughout the film they bicker constantly, get their feelings hurt, and are constantly competitive, yet not afraid to have a laugh. There’s unconditional love between them, despite all of their constant brotherly conflict.
Our chemist’s goal seems rather similar to that of Eli’s. Warm searches for a nicer life by planning to start a commune in Dallas, where everyone is treated with equality, and money or class don’t matter. He’s not seeking violence, but instead bases his moral code on mutual respect. Going against western tropes, there’s no hugely-menacing gunslinger on our protagonists’ tail. I would argue the biggest villain to the brothers is the brothers themselves and their often-fragile bond. Audiard and his frequent screenwriting collaborator Thomas Bidegain aren’t afraid to delve into the weaknesses of our brothers. We know their father was a raving alcoholic and a madman, maybe even sculpting them into the clinical assassins they are—but perhaps don’t want to be.
Throughout the first two acts of story we follow the parallel stories of Charlie & Eli and Warm & Morris respectively. While Riz Ahmed and Jake Gyllenhaal are a reliably good double act—known for their brilliant pairing in 2014’s Nightcrawler—the film doesn’t have as much substance under the surface as it does when the focus is on the internal struggle of the brothers. Audiard is not hugely focused on delivering a compelling story, but is far more invested in delivering a pair of leads who are given room to bond. Unfortunately, the film feels like it meanders at some points while moving at great speed at others.
Jake Gyllenhaal is without a doubt one of the best actors working today, and he feels like the wildcard of the narrative whose primary motivation is always cloudy. While his and Ahmed’s characters aren’t as interesting as the brothers, it’s good to watch them together on screen again, even if it takes a long time to adjust to Gyllenhaal’s peculiar accent.
Cinematographer Benoît Debie gives the film a noticeable digital sheen especially in the film’s low-light night time photography—which even echoed that of Michael Mann’s (Collateral; Miami Vice) at points. You expect grand vistas shot on textured grainy film, but Debie and Audiard go away from that. Going against expectations once again, Alexandre Desplat’s score employs far more piano and off-kilter acoustics than the epic strings you’d expect.
While The Sisters Brothers isn’t as hugely engaging as Audiard probably wants it to be, he understands that if you have compelling characters at the centre, there will most certainly be enough goodness present. I would argue the western genre is synonymous with hardened masculinity, and Audiard isn’t afraid to deconstruct that and show that the titular brothers are truly emotional beings who aren’t your standard ‘tough guy’ assassins who scare the life out of everyone as soon as they walk into a room (or saloon), and that’s refreshing to see.
The Sisters Brothers is showing at this year’s Alliance French Film Festival which runs from March 13 to April 10. You can check session times here.