The Sisters Brothers is a western with no heroes. It sees the old west for the lawless place it really was. Even so-called “civilized” men resort to violence and duplicity to get what they want. Everybody seems to wear a metaphorical black hat in this story. But this does not become a depressing descent into darkness. If anything, it is an attempt to rise out of darkness. It follows four men living the life they feel they have to, until maybe, just maybe, they find an escape. It is not about redemption or a shot at realism. It is somewhere between the traditional westerns of John Wayne and the amorality of Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name trilogy (though it is closer to the latter). There are shootouts, but they are not the centerpiece. This movie is not focused on the buildup to bloodshed. Whatever it is you expect from this genre, The Sisters Brothers is probably going to surprise you at least a couple of times.
The title duo are hired killers working for a wealthy and unscrupulous businessman in 1851 Oregon. As the story opens, he sends them to kill a man who he claims owes him money. He has already sent someone to find the man, so all the Sisters’ will need to do is kill him. It sounds like an easy job, but internal conflicts can make anything more difficult.
The Sisters Brothers (based on the 2011 novel by Patrick DeWitt) is about character as opposed to plot. Director/cowriter Jacques Audiard (a Frenchman making his first English-language film) allows the performances to dictate a lot of the action. He does not pile on trickery. His attention is on the personalities. I was surprised when I heard Audiard was making an American Western and wondered what the genre would look like in his hands. He certainly does not disappoint. Though he begins with a shootout, it is in the dark, filmed in extreme longshot. The gunplay is not “exciting,” just necessary. He keeps the tone bouncing from drama to adventure and even some dark comedy. It is tremendously unpredictable and very entertaining.
None of it would work if the actors in the four major roles were not so good at finding their characters’ places in the unconventional narrative.
John C. Reilly is one of the most dependable “good guys” in the movies. He has a truly likable screen presence. Here he is Eli Sisters, the older brother who works as an assassin purely for the money. He is successful at it, but greatly dislikes it. Somehow, Reilly makes Eli kind of endearing. Despite his murderous trade, he is actually a fairly pleasant guy. Eli is much more complex than he sounds. Reilly is absolutely fantastic in the role. He is really the only actor who has to balance all of the diverse tones. He emphasizes Eli’s naiveté and desire for a better life. He is violent out of necessity. Under different circumstances you could see him being a happy family man.
Younger brother Charlie Sisters, who takes pride in what he does, is played by the always exciting Joaquin Phoenix, who mixes a wounded intensity with a joy in exploiting the reputation he has earned by killing so many people. Charlie is the leader when it comes to the job and irresponsible when it comes to everything else. He is a dangerous man who needs to be taken care of when he gets drunk (which is quite often). Both brothers are childlike at times, however, while Eli is trying to learn and grow, Charlie wants things to stay the way they are. Initially, it appears to be a pretty straightforward part, but Phoenix has a solid arc and he plays it with a subtlety that was unexpected from Charlie.
The other two important parts are equally well-cast. Jake Gyllenhaal, one of the more underappreciated great actors of his generation, is John Morris, the investigator sent to find the Sisters’ target. On the surface, he is the sort of cultured and articulate man Eli wants to be. As Hermann Kermit Warm, the chemist who sets the plot in motion, Riz Ahmed is charming and sneaky in a very outgoing way. He could have been a plot device whose only importance is that he is being hunted, but Audiard and his cowriter, Thomas Bidegain, gave him agency. Ahmed is predictably entertaining. These two end up with a relationship that works as an intriguing contrast to the brothers.
The Sisters Brothers (114 minutes without the end credits) plays with western conventions, but not in a mocking or showy way. It does that for the sake of its characters, instead of an attempt at cleverness. Unsurprisingly for Audiard, the writing is nuanced and the direction is restrained in the right places. It is slow-moving, yet never dull. And the acting is brilliant.
I love westerns, so I have been looking forward to The Sisters Brothers since I first heard about it. Though it was not exactly what I anticipated, I am extremely satisfied. This is a smart, crafty, deep film that quietly references genre tropes as it forges its own unique path.
4½ out of 5
John C. Reilly as Eli Sisters
Joaquin Phoenix as Charlie Sisters
Jake Gyllenhaal as John Morris
Riz Ahmed as Hermann Kermit Warm
Directed by Jacques Audiard
Screenplay by Jacques Audiard and Thomas Bidegain