The real tragedy of The Sisters Brothers isn’t anything directly related to the story. It’s the fact that whilst the film met with critical acclaim, it wasn’t particularly financially successful on its run through movie theatres, making back about a third of its production budget.
Somehow though, I doubt John C. Reilly really minds. This was something of a passion project for him. He bought the rights to the 2011 novel, written by Canadian author Patrick deWitt, and then spent seven years getting everything together to turn it into a movie. Directed by Jacques Audiard, The Sisters Brothers is in many ways more of a road movie than it is a Western, eschewing many of the now-familiar trappings of classic or even revisionist Westerns we’ve seen in recent years.
While in some ways it falls into that genre known as the “Adult” Western, with the inclusion of scenes of sex and fairly brutal violence, it never wallows in them. Much of the violence happens off-screen, or is viewed only from a distance. Even the ultimate climax of the film swerves off in a direction likely to take audiences by surprise. So, all this said, what is the film actually about? The plot is, at its core, a simple one: a manhunt.
The two brothers are Eli (John C. Reilly – Magnolia, Step Brothers), who is the older of the pair. More sensitive and thoughtful than his sibling, he spends a lot of the film seeking a human connection, a meaning behind the killing that takes up so much of their lives. The other brother is Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix – Gladiator, You Were Never Really Here) and he seems content to spend his days killing, and his nights boozing.
The brothers are hired by the mysterious figure known only as “The Commodore” (Rutger Hauer in his last on-screen role before his death) to track down and kill a man known as Hermann Warm (Riz Ahmed – Sound of Metal, Rogue One). They’re assisted in this by a private detective by the name of Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal – Brokeback Mountain, Ambulance), who serves as a tracker. He befriends Warm and stays close to him while at the same time sending telegrams back to let the brothers know where they will can intercept their quarry.
For most of the runtime of the film the two stories play out individually, connected only by telegrams and hints of the progress of Morris and Warm, who are always a few days ahead of the brothers. The brothers, meanwhile, must deal with their own obstacles, both physical and philosophical, and by the time everyone meets up on-screen, loyalties and priorities are not what they were when the story began. Will the story end in a crescendo of blood and violence? Are the brothers truly trapped in the life they’ve chosen? Will Warm and Morris find a peaceful life and a utopia of their own making?
Available as both a Blu-ray and a 4K UHD release, Arrow Video have given us their usual lovely transfer, with the film looking simply gorgeous, allowing the audience to fully appreciate Audiard’s love for blood, dirt and dust. That said, for an Arrow release, the special features feel a little light on the ground. There’s a single commentary track featuring authors and critics C. Courtney Joyner and Henry Parke which is quite entertaining to listen to, with their love for the genre, and this film in particular, shining through. There’s a short (21 minutes long) video essay by film critic Barry Forshaw, in which talks about both The Sisters Brothers and the psychological Western genre. It serves as a really good overview of the genre as a whole and exactly where this film fits into it.
‘His Own Private Wild West’ is the behind-the-scenes, making-of documentary full of interviews with cast and crew including the director, actor John C. Reilly, author Patrick DeWitt, and others. Rounding things off is a small collection of trailers/promo shorts and online reviews which are entertaining enough, but also fairly skippable, each collection running a few minutes in length to pad things out.
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This Limited Edition release also features the usual reversible sleeve, a double-sided “Wanted” poster of the brothers, and a collector’s booklet with more new writing on the film and production notes. And that’s it. That’s all you get! For other films that’s still a decent selection of material, but for an Arrow release? It feels a bit scant. Perhaps there simply was nothing else to say, but it’s a shame they couldn’t at least get any of the cast/crew to record a commentary track.
Slightly disappointing special features of this release aside, The Sisters Brothers is a simply wonderful time that should find a place in the collection of any self respecting movie fan. Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly are a delight to watch, their on-screen squabbling and bickering immediately familiar to anyone who has grown up with a brother! Maybe with less murder and whisky, though.
The Sisters Brothers is out on Limited Edition Blu-ray and 4k UHD on 27th February from Arrow Video.