REVIEW: ‘The Sisters Brothers’ is a Western Unlike Any You Have Ever Seen



The first English-language film from French director Jacques Audiard, ‘The Sisters Brothers’ is a unique deconstructionist western that satisfyingly defies category. While its varying tone may be jarring to some viewers, the compelling story, fleshed-out characters and attention to detail makes it a compelling entry into the genre.

‘The Sisters Brothers’ opens in the darkness of night which is quickly shattered by bright flashes as guns fire in the black. Gunpowder sparks as two unseen groups exchange fire. This is the first time I can remember seeing such a scene in a western and this striking image sets a perfect tone for the film to follow. Audiard is not interested in showing us a wild west we have seen before and together with cinematographer Benoit Debie, they show us the old west with new eyes.

The overarching theme of ‘The Sisters Brothers’ is one of an old world giving way to a new one, filth giving way to cleanliness, violence giving way to civility. This is displayed in tiny moments. A gunslinger learns to brush his teeth for the first time, a well-dressed gentleman carefully walks on a long piece of wood laid across a busy town street to avoid getting his nice boots covered in mud and horseshit. This struggle between the dual natures of man is perfectly embodied in the eponymous Sisters Brothers. Charlie Sisters (Joaquin Phoenix) is violent and erratic, in love with his own legend. He is drunken, dangerous and self-destructive. His older brother Eli (John C. Reilly) is unsure and bumbling, meek and gentle, always wanting to improve himself in a quiet way. Their dynamic is one of constant push and pull. Charlie starts fights, Eli backs him up. Eli gets injured, Charlie nurses him back to health while consistently berating him for how much it slows them down.

The Sisters Brothers are under the employ of The Commodore portrayed by Rutger Hauer in a dialogue-free role and is only seen from a distance. This is an intentional decision. He is talked about often and rarely on screen. He is the puppet master pulling the strings. Charlie and Eli are guns-for-hire who it seems owe some kind of a debt to The Commodore and have essentially become his personal enforcers. Their latest mission is to track down a man named Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed.) Charlie tells Eli that their best bet is to employ a ‘lead man’ who will reach Warm first and hold him there for the Sisters Brothers.

The Sisters Brothers

At this point in the story we meet John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), a well-groomed and observant gentleman who is revealed to be the lead man. He writes in a journal which is delivered as voice-over. Morris creates a bond of friendship with Warm that begins as a ruse and becomes a genuine connection. Warm is headed to San Francisco as part of the gold rush and has created a scientific concoction for finding gold. When asked if he has had a chance to test it, he indicates that it worked better than he could have dreamed. Warm intends to use the fortune he makes from gold to found a new society based on intellect and respect. His talks of a utopian commune win over the refined John Morris who is fighting against the savagery of the west.

As the story goes back to the Sisters, we see them cut a path of violence through the countryside. Charlie insists on announcing their presence wherever they go while Eli tries to keep it secret. The Sisters Brothers are renowned for their skills as gunmen and their legend invites constant challenges, something Eli is trying to avoid.

One of my favorite scenes is one in which the brothers stop into a brothel called Mayfield’s in the town of Mayfield run by a Madame by the name of Mayfield (Charlie makes a remark about how they really need more creativity in naming things.) Eli retires to a room with a prostitute played in a short but memorable scene by the always tremendous Allison Tolman (‘FX’s Fargo,’ ‘Krampus.’) Eli awkwardly asks her to do some minor role play and requests that she act as if she is giving him a forget-me-not as he is going away. Even when paying for sex, Eli refuses to be rough and tumble like the killers surrounding him. He wants to see himself as a heroic character and treats her very gently. She begins to cry at his kindness, something she does not see much of and warns him to watch out for Mayfield. The Sisters fight off an ambush by Mayfield’s men and show themselves to once again wield awe-inspiring proficiency as gunmen. They intend to rob Mayfield’s safe and murder her when she refuses to help them. This again displays the refusal of this film to play by standard rules. As we observe Morris and Warm with their dreams of a utopia and the Sisters brothers killing a woman in cold blood, our notions of heroism and villainy are put into question.

Charlie and Eli exit the brothel as the townspeople are gathered outside from hearing the gunshots. They announce that Mayfield is dead. “But there’s good news” Charlie says “You can finally change the name of your town.” It’s a hilarious moment. This film is very, very funny although I would never call it a comedy. I can imagine that most people assumed this was a comedy, an inevitable side effect of having John C. Reilly who has starred in some of the most iconic comedic roles of this generation. This is however closer to the Reilly of ‘Magnolia.’ Flawed, fragile and sincere. Phoenix also shows his comedic chops subtly as he did in ‘Inherent Vice’ as the careless and murderous Eli. His disregard for human life leads to some pristine moments of dark comedy as shoots people to death with the same amount of effort as someone brushing dust off their shoulder.

The Sisters Brothers. Day 30.

The structure of ‘The Sisters Brothers’ is impeccably paced. Based on a book of the same name by Patrick DeWitt with a screenplay by Jacques Audiard and Thomas Bidegain, we know that these two forces moving against each other are destined to crash into each other. When they do however, the results are unexpected, touching and poignant.

This is a cast of incredible actors at the top of their game. I am especially happy to see Riz Ahmed once again paired with his ‘Nightcrawler’ co-star Gyllenhaal in extremely different roles. Gyllenhaal is a chameleon actor whose commitment to the idea that there are no small roles is always refreshing. Ahmed who after a star-making turn on HBO’s ‘The Night Of’ has been largely wasted in forgettable roles in films like ‘Rogue One’ and ‘Jason Bourne.’ Seeing them play off each other as determined and naïve dreamers is wonderful. The dynamic of Phoenix and Reilly’s brothers changes sharply as the film progresses as well. Eli is the older brother but has always been pushed into the background due to Charlie’s forceful personality. Eventually he has to learn to be a big brother and this helps him to move beyond many of his insecurities.

‘The Sisters Brothers’ will likely be a hard film to sell. But while its tone refuses easy categorization, I believe its witty and understated comedy, astutely realized details and stirring message will reward repeated viewings.