An offbeat Western (the only kinds that people seem to make anymore) based on the novel of the same name by Patrick deWitt, Jacques Audiard’s adaptation of The Sisters Brothers follows Eli (John C. Reilly) and Charlie Sisters (Joaquin Phoenix continuing his good year), brothers and assassins for the local Commodore (Rutger Hauer). They are infamously good at what they do and possess the kind of luck with regards to staying alive that shocks even Eli, who’s in his mid-30s despite their line of work. It’s the early 1850s, a time of great expansion and growth for the untamed West, which the Sisters are going to get a close-up view of on their latest assignment: find and kill a man called Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed). Warm is being tracked by a hired detective, John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), with orders to keep him detained until the Sisters catch up to them, but things aren’t as straightforward as they appear. Warm hasn’t actually stolen anything from the Commodore and is, in reality, a chemist with a radical new method of finding gold that the brothers are supposed to torture out of him, a fact that appalls all but Charlie, the Sisters brother who has a natural knack for killing.
Therefore, The Sisters Brothers is a movie of two halves. The first involves getting the four wayward travellers to the point where they can finally cross paths with one another, taking a sort of episodic turn as Charlie and Eli saunter into gunfights, piss off an entire town, and try a shortcut that ends with a giant spider crawling into Eli’s mouth when he’s sleeping (the resultant reaction almost killing him). The second involves the foursome deciding to sack off a society that wants them dead and running off to test out Warm’s solution in the hopes of retirement money and a stockpile for a brighter future. Warm is an idealist, you see, a man who believes, in spite of everything he’s seen and all the shit he’s been through, that there is the capacity for true good in this world if the parameters are just right and the worst of human nature that the West encourages are dissuaded. He doesn’t even want to personally get rich from his potential gold-rush haul, instead desiring to channel the funds into a company he’ll base in Texas that will allow him to fund such a society. He’s a man cruelly born before his time, but his thinking has a way of swaying those who don’t immediately call him crazy or try to kill him, particularly John Morris, whose relationship with Warm effectively turns into a non-explicit Brokeback Mountain remake by the time the Sisters catch up with them.
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Charlie, meanwhile, represents the destructive id of the West in full force. Eli is in this business because of a lack of other suitable options and a desire to keep his brother out of fatal trouble, but Charlie likes it. He’s the guy who stumbles into town drunk and feigns being unable to remember what unconscionable thing he did the following morning, who deliberately provokes tetchier townsfolk so that he has an excuse to shoot someone, who ribs his brother over every little thing but can’t take any criticism sent his way, and whose only solution to any problem is more violence. To just keep killing and killing until either there’s nothing left to kill or Charlie himself is dead. There is a tragic reason as to why he’s like this, of course, but it doesn’t excuse his pathological self-destruction, the effects of which (as they always do) soon stretch outward of Charlie and begin also destroying the good in and of other people’s lives as well. This is a role that Phoenix can play in his sleep, but that also leads to the most relaxed performance I’ve seen of his in an age. He slides into a natural chemistry with Reilly – who, let’s face it, could probably generate natural chemistry with a tube gate if you made them both screen partners – that’s believably brotherly and it’s what makes the film. Ditto Gyllenhaal and Ahmed as Morris and Warm; Ahmed especially is so good that it makes complete sense that Morris would up sticks and follow Warm with true devotion because I would have too.
Even without my fatigue from a fortnight of doing this and the two day delay between viewing the film and penning the review, I’d likely still have difficulty putting together a decent review of The Sisters Brothers. Not because the film’s bad or mediocre or anything like that, heavens no. Rather, it’s that annoying kind of great film that’s missing some unknown kick to make it a Great Film but any criticisms you attempt to dredge up in order to justify really enjoying but not loving it feel disingenuous to type. Example: maybe the film’s first half feels a little disjointed and aimless, especially tonally, considering where the film ends up, but that’s in retrospect and it’s all still entertaining and thematically relevant – demonstrating the growing disillusionment in the West by the Sisters and pushing them to a point where they do what they do when they finally catch up with Warm and Morris. Director Jacques Audiard (Rust and Bone, making his English-language debut) luxuriates in the darkly-comedic mood, his screenplay (co-written by Thomas Bidegain) is well-balanced in all facets, and the cast are all excellent and elevate the film higher than it otherwise may have gone. There’s nothing spectacular about The Sisters Brothers, it’s just a very good and highly enjoyable movie that may not excel but is an ideal way to spend one’s time nonetheless. The quintessential four-star movie: pain in the ass to review, but always a joy to watch.