The Pitch: It’s 1851 in the lawless hills of Oregon. The Sisters brothers, Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix) and Eli (John C. Reilly), make a mint tracking down and “handling” anybody who runs afoul of the local constable. They’re sent on a particularly ambitious trip down to California when word comes along that the amateur inventor Hermann Warn (Riz Ahmed) has a price on his head for a formula the constable wants, a formula that can be poured into a river to illuminate gold ore in its raw form. They send the foppish middle man John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal) to hold Warn until they arrive, but Warn’s relentless optimism soon sways the weary Morris. Combined with Eli’s increasing desire to get out of the murder business, even as Charlie digs himself deeper into it with every drunken night, there’s trouble a’brewing on the old frontier.
A Cowboy, or Something: Nearly a decade ago now, Jacques Audiard stormed onto the world filmmaking scene with A Prophet, a harrowing prison drama that offered an artfully surrealist take on one of film’s most well-traveled subgenres. For his English-language debut The Sisters Brothers, Audiard takes a similar approach to perhaps the most well-traveled subgenre, at least in the U.S.: the Western. From early on, Sisters takes great pains to establish that this won’t be your grandfather’s Western. The opening shootout takes place in total darkness, with only the muzzle flashes illuminating a wide expanse. The conversations between the coarse Charlie and the gentler Eli take on the meandering cadence of a Richard Linklater vehicle. In between the copious shootouts, which Audiard renders with bracingly immediate violence, there are a number of near-anachronistic beats involving toothbrushes and philosophical inquiry. The Sisters Brothers looks like a lot of Westerns you’ve seen before, all wide-angle panoramas of the untamed wilderness and furtive conversations around campfires, but it sure doesn’t feel like one.
Square Dance: Unsurprisingly, the best moments in The Sisters Brothers arrive courtesy of the film’s central quartet, who do a great deal to elevate what would’ve otherwise felt like a conceptual exercise in genre tropes into something memorable, and even affecting from time to time. Phoenix has played these mumbling, slurring notes elsewhere, but he turns the feral quality of some of his best performances inward, putting forth a bloodthirsty cowboy who’s falling apart every second of the day he isn’t drunk. Ahmed brings a studied charm to his ambitious prospector, and there’s a gentility to his scenes with Gyllenhaal that sees both men do some of their best work in the film. (Gyllenhaal has several of the film’s best line readings as the educated, and pretentious, Morris.)
What really makes the film sing, however, is Reilly’s work as Eli, which sees the actor use his hulking frame in ways usually mined onscreen for comic effect. (A couple of the shots placing him right next to Phoenix are a hoot in their sheer contrast.) Eli is an outlaw from the Quiet Man playbook, a mouse in the body of a giant. Audiard spends quite a bit of time studying Eli, more so than anybody else onscreen, and it’s through his exhausted perspective that much of the film unfolds. Eli and Charlie are less brotherly than symbiotic; without Eli, Charlie would’ve been executed years ago, and without Charlie, Eli would be without the only thing that’s ever motivated him through life. Reilly gets to work in every corner of his skillset at various points throughout The Sisters Brothers, from broad gag comedy to the aching pathos of some of his earliest performances, and it’s a reminder that while he’s an adept comedian, he’s also one of our more engaging dramatic performers working today.
The Verdict: The Sisters Brothers is a film built from contradictions, and to a point, it’s worth considering the ways in which Audiard intends for them to be read. There’s a sharp (if obvious) contrast drawn between Charlie and Eli, and even if the film takes pains to shade the humanity into both, there’s a clear hero and antihero present in the story. The film may take a while to unite all four actors, but some of its best stuff emerges in those early scenes, when Audiard tries to complicate his familiar characters by lending them an appealingly human eccentricity. There’s a strangeness to certain passages of Sisters that bolsters it through its seedy saloons and cacophonous firefights, and it constitutes the best the film has to offer.
However, as it unfolds and the story eventually dovetails into one of hubris and its inevitable conclusions, The Sisters Brothers struggles to reconcile its loose, even playful tone with the bone-crunching visceral impact of so much of its violence. Heads aren’t simply shot but instead reduced to piles of brain and bone, punches land with the impact of a falling boulder, and somewhere along the way The Sisters Brothers loses its footing in trying to juxtapose the bloody realities of the Old West with the modern tendencies of a particularly chatty indie. It’s an interesting exercise, but also not one that entirely works, particularly in the way that it’s ultimately yet another story about violent men finding their way to salvation through yet more violence. For a film that sees Audiard playing so much with genre and form, The Sisters Brothers is just a hair underwhelming for how eminently familiar it winds up being.
Where’s It Playing?: The Sisters Brothers opens in NY/LA on September 25th, and will expand wider thereafter.