Title: The Sisters Brothers
Country: France, Spain, Romania, USA, Belgium
Genre: Western, Adventure, Crime, Comedy
Director: Jacques Audiard
Writers: Jacques Audiard, Thomas Bidegain
based on the book by Patrick DeWitt
Music: Alexandre Desplat
Cinematography: Benoît Debie
John C. Reilly
More often than not, an outsider’s distance and sobriety brings new perspective on an established genre, like Chloé Zhao’s THE RIDER (2017), a modern Western directed by a Chinese female director. The man who holds the rein of THE SISTERS BROTHERS, a revisionist Western based on Patrick DeWitt’s novel, is French auteur Jacques Audiard, having put his name on the map for gritty socio-drama like RUST AND BONE (2012) and Palme d’or winner DEEPHAN (2015), and this latest one won him BEST DIRECTOR trophy in Venice.
Mid-19th century, the titular Sisters Brothers, Eli and Charlie Sisters (Reilly and Phoenix, respectively), are notorious hitmen working for the Commodore (Hauer), after efficiently showing their capacity in dispatching their targets during a pitch-black shoot-out (the film is entirely shot in Europe with Spain chiefs stands in for the desert land), the film segues into the main plot, revolving about their next mission, to assassinate a prospector named Hermann Kermit Warm (Ahmed), who allegedly steals something from the Commodore and is heading to San Francisco concomitant with the California Gold Rush.
Geographically, the brothers are traversing from Oregon City to the West Coast, a haul that literally leads them ride out of the usual western trappings with modern civilization inconspicuously encroaching on, novelties like toothbrush and water closet amaze Eli, and prompt him to reconsider their perilous line of work in a vast, lawless world. Fraternal ructions slowly emerge and culminate in San Francisco when Eli floats the idea of bowing out to his younger brother in a fancy hotel restaurant, yet they agree to finish the last job together.
Meantime, their quarry is being shadowed by John Morris (Gyllenhaal), a scout also sent by the Commodore, who should assure that the brothers can eventually lay their hands on Warm, but after Morris and Warm fraternize, a deeper bond gels between them, and when Morris realizes what the Commodore wants is not just Warm’s life but also a formula he concoct for fast-tracking the process of gold prospecting, he takes Warm’s side and they hightail together to seek their fortune, until the Sisters brothers catch upon with them.
After annihilating a posse of mercenaries, the quartet forms an unexpected coalition when the brothers partake in the prospecting, and more backstories timely unravel, Eli explains to Warm how they start out this business and the past trauma that haunts a profligate, violent Charlie, everything can be boiled down to patriarchal abomination, including Morris’ hatred to his father, so when their precious camaraderie is harrowingly cut short owing to Charlie’s stupidity and greed, it leaves the Commodore, the patriarchal figurehead as the final target for the brothers to remove from the earth, if they want a new lease on life, yet, in another twist of fate, their heroic stance only dissipates into a willful rap on a corpse, to all intents and purposes, it is the end of an era, and Audiard suffixes with a fluid epilogue that beautifully evokes domestic bliss that one might never apply to the two quick-on-the-draw killers.
John C. Reilly, by this reviewer’s lighter, stands out as the reluctant protector of his brother and a sympathetic gunslinger who is weary of his savage diet but cannot find an easy outlet, bringing out touching pathos, intensity, compassion and a spider-gobbling stunt, Mr. Reilly strongly contests that his talent is seriously misused for goofing along with Will Farrell in atrocious comedies. Joaquin Phoenix, by comparison, is in a much slacker mode where his outrageous excesses mask a stunted development that ekes out an impression driven by animal instinct and self-destruction.
Truthfully, the subplot of Morris and Warm comes over more piquant because it introduces a new light to the usual suspects inhabiting a western land, an erudite Morris and an idealist man-of-science Warm represent the beacon of a civilized future, and interestingly, for those who have watched Dan Gilroy’s NIGHTCRAWLER (2014), here as if Gyllenhaal goes out of his way to redeem what he has done to Ahmed in that movie, and the two actors sincerely register an intense mutual affection that might not entirely platonic. Alas, this is a horse opera called THE SISTERS BROTHERS, not MORRIS AND WARM, still, a mesmeric picture that bridges the old and new Western with distinction, confidence and a tint of Gallic levity.