MOVIE REVIEW: The Sisters Brothers

(Photo by Magali Bragard for Annapurna Pictures)

(Photo by Magali Bragard for Annapurna Pictures)


Revisiting a list researched for this website’s review of the stellar 2014 Danish film The Salvationthe American-born western film genre has gained a colorful and delicious list of foreign descriptors for the film entries made by other nationalities. From “spaghetti,” “meat pie” and “ostern” to “curry” and “charro,” there are reasons for the good ole’ U.S. of A. to feel jealous and intrigued to realize that some of the best westerns being made today are coming from foreign directors and sources. After The Salvation, look no further than The Sisters Brothers from French director Jacques Audiard. Call it a “baguette,” “crepe,” or “foie gras” western, but the Rust and Bone and Dheepan filmmaker has genuflected to make a proper addition to this movie discipline.

Combining narrative pinches and dashes from three (Union Pacific, empire, and outlaw) of the seven classic western plots and adapted from Canadian author Patrick deWitt’s 2011 historical novel, The Sisters Brothers follows Eli and Charlie Sisters, two hired Oregon guns who work for the Commodore (an easy Rutger Hauer cameo) in 1851. Eli (John C. Reilly, also a producer on this) is the soulful and earnest one of the duo, pushed often by the brash and drunken alpha that is Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix). Their familial dedication is lockstep and their combined success is mighty no matter their different temperaments. Succinct with their words and their triggers, the two are hired to track down a person of interest for their handler.

Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed) is an educated chemist who wants to take his skills to prospecting gold in the rushed California streams outside San Francisco. As a bit of a MacGuffin, Warm is devised an acidic and noxious formula for locating gold in water, attracting the attention of a prim and dignified detective by the name of John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal). The trails of the target and his two parties of pursuers intersect with the notion for all involved to potentially go into business for themselves. Flies lie in ointment and spiders get swallowed (you’ll see) as the percussive snaps and tickling piano notes from Academy Award-winning composer Alexandre Desplat bring class and pep to all of this tension and intrigue.

The Sisters Brothers presents an actors showcase dressed to the dirtiest nine by four-time Oscar-winning costume designer Milena Canonero (The Grand Budapest Hotel). Phoenix is a world-class rabble rouser which makes him a perfect fit as the sh-t stirrer. Gyllenhaal’s doleful eyes can sell dignity to Hallmark when necessary. The titan here is the excellent John C. Reilly, enjoying a rare topline lead role. His unmistakable heart in The Sisters Brothers is the bleeding heart of the film and a reminder of his dramatic range capable of shining above his usual comedy wheelhouse. Reilly deserves more opportunities like this. Maybe his turn as Oliver Hardy in the upcoming Stan & Ollie will have Oscar calling his number with this performance as resume backup.

These performance displays are seasoned well by Jacques Audiard and the visiting artists leaving their usual digs to show off their acumen to play in the western sandbox. Spring Breakers director of photography Benoît Debie absorbs his subjects into the lush vistas he captures. Audiard’s tight team of frequent collaborators from A Prophet and Rust and Bone follow to hone the picture into steely shape, including stellar editing from Juliette Welfing and perfect period-era production design from Michel Barthélémy.

This solid result sure looks the part from horizon to horizon, once again making us American jealous of how good westerns can still look. The brutality level is bloody and perfect to sting with straight punches. . What is beautiful is also tedious. After the chase and pace expand in the second and third acts, what looks spacious is still sparse in point and plot. Looks, performances, and skills glide past it to a satisfying and true-to-the-novel conclusion.

LESSON #1: DON’T STEAL FROM DANGEROUS MEN — If you don’t someone on your tail looking to collect a handsome finder’s fee or deliver a bullet to your brain, avoid taking what doesn’t belong to you. Each crime or rebuffed opposing party only adds a new pursuer and higher risk.

LESSON #2: CHECK YOUR WORDS — You must remember that westerns occupy an historical era of plain-speaking. Semantics matter as well as the level of conversation. Communicate honestly as if inferencing skills are low.

LESSON #3: THE DYNAMICS OF BIG AND LITTLE BROTHERS — Throughout The Sisters Brothers, Joaquin’s Charlie and John’s Eli tug on all sorts of brotherly quirks. Shame for one another and their up-and-down livelihoods is a constant cycle that brings out heavy interactions between the actors. To that end, trust and distrust can create binding familial glue or torch loyalty to cinders.