“We’re the Sisters brothers,” Charlie Sisters (Joaquin Phoenix) frequently announces, in Jacques Audiard’s latest, “The Sisters Brothers,” a dark, comedic, idiosyncratic Western with the secret weapon of melancholic empathy hidden in its holster. It’s a seemingly odd declaration, given the Sisters brothers’ reputation as ruthless, proficient killers already precedes them. But Charlie likes it. He likes the way it sounds, the weight it carries, the fear it instills, the comfort it provides. He even reasserts the pronouncement to his older brother Eli, (John C. Reilly), as if to remind his sibling of their unbreakable bond while reinforcing their myth. But as a man, unable to see the horizon, seemingly lost in the world without the purpose of killing, for Charlie, it’s almost a reassuring self-told lie. It’s a near desperate statement of identity—this is who we are and who would we be if we weren’t us? Men born of tragedy and violence. Men who have never known anything else.
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Set in the American West of 1851, the Sisters are two bounty hunter assassins, plucked from a traumatic past, who’ve known only killing from a very young age. The brothers work for the Commodore (Rutger Hauer, in what are very brief appearances), a wealthy Northwestern magnate who fortifies his stronghold by employing the pair to dispose of his rivals and enemies. Charlie, cocky, volatile, damaged, is happy to comply. But Eli, the more introverted, sensitively-attuned brother, comes to slowly realize an exit strategy could be a spiritual salvation from all the blood and savagery around them. And these diverging ideas begin to tear the brothers apart.
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The Sisters brothers’ fate is inadvertently set on a new course when they’re sent on a journey through the Northwest to find prospector and fugitive chemist Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed) who may just have invented some magic formula for finding gold. The plan is to meet up with the erudite scout John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal, using an educated, 19th Century East Coast accent to a mouthful of effect), who will capture Warm and hand him over to the brothers. However, Morris, a decent man, becomes sympathetic to Warm and his goal of using the riches for building an idealistic utopian society. Morris has a change of heart, and the brothers are forced to trek through the dangerous Gold Rush lands of California where they encounter conflicts that will challenge the ideas of who they are and who they could ultimately become.
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An adaptation of Patrick DeWitt’s novel, “The Sisters Brothers,” Audiard’s impressive English-language debut and cinematic reimagining of the Western is picaresque, with a strong, surprising undercurrent of emotion that catches the viewer off guard. It’s an engaging movie that leisurely canters towards mordant comedy and veers into some somber, psychologically dark territory of violence, abuse, trauma—the ways men avoid and compartmentalize their damage to survive the emotions they cannot understand.
Eventually, it segues into something much more moving, soulful and even poignant. It’s certainly Audiard’s most mainstream effort, galloping at an economical and brisk pace with no fat on the bone, and yet, “The Sisters Brothers” is still far from commercial.
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Phoenix, as the cocky but underneath-it-all-terrified Charlie is remarkable, naturally. His performance is equally playful, mischievous and abruptly menacing. But it can’t be understated how good and how much of an equal John C. Reilly is and how he breathes so much life into the movie’s weightier existential themes about identity, both of the individual and of society. As the older, but more introspective brother, Eli puts up with much condescending abuse. Theirs is a complicated love/hate relationship; Eli eating shit constantly, exploited, pushed around, and yet, still ultimately managing and taking care of his disturbed younger brother.
And for all its quirks, it’s an emotional, talky, even existentialist film, the brothers constantly bickering, but also warring about who they are, what they’ve survived and who they could be. But one can argue it’s Reilly who carries the deeper emotional contours and inherent sadness of the picture with his quieter moments and the unspoken desire for something more.
It’s a testament to just how good the script is (co-written by Reilly with the author), that Jake Gyllenhaal and Riz Ahmed would take on these smaller (but no less considered), parts. Look, Jake G could have easily been cast as the lead and been terrific, but his learned, pretentious and affecting Morris is terrific. Ahmed is equally strong, and you almost want their adventure to be a mini-series merely to spend more time with them.
Handsomely crafted with beautiful cinematography (Benoît Debie), Audiard masterfully (and seamlessly) negotiates tone with meaningful fluidity. One moment is pitch-black comedy with dead men scattered everywhere, the next, a haunting image of a horse on fire blazing past, alluding to the darker, more troubled underbelly of the film. One might ascribe Coen-esque sensibilities to a picture that can turn on a dime from brutal violence to comedy to compassion, but “The Sisters Brothers” is far more organic.
Regular collaborator Alexandre Desplat, who has scored most of Audiard’s films, continues his streak. It’s unclear if Desplat is capable of writing a mediocre score and his stirring, faintly melancholy music (with some subtle nods to Spaghetti Westerns), does a lot of subconscious work, sowing the seeds of sentiment for when the movie becomes disarmingly emotional in the last act.
Intimate, funny and poignant, “The Sisters Brothers” is not overtly political, but its ideas that bad people can change, that a decent civilization can still take hold in the savagery of America, certainly have resonant echoes. In its warm, tender conclusion, Audiard pieces together a fragmented dream that points to something hopeful.
A movie about manhood, brotherhood and the unexpected bonds of fraternity, explored in all their brutality and twisted humor, “The Sisters Brothers” presents the cruel hostilities of the world, the innocence lost in the madness and the possibilities of a humanity still to be found scattered through the debris of American carnage. [B+]
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