sun 16/06/2019

The Sisters Brothers review – wonderfully off-the-wall western | reviews, news & interviews

The Sisters Brothers review – wonderfully off-the-wall western

The Sisters Brothers review – wonderfully off-the-wall western

Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly star as sibling gunmen on a dangerous trek West

Way out west: Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly in The Sisters Brothers

French director Jacques Audiard is a master at genre with a twist, most famously the prison drama A Prophet, but also a number of crime thrillers with atypical settings or themes, including The Beat that my Heart Skipped (classical music), Dheepan (political refugees) and Read My Lips (office politics). Audiard turns genre templates upside down, sometimes merges them, invariably with excellent results. Having now turned his attention to the western, it’s not surprising that he’s created one of the best I’ve seen for years.  

Based on Patrick DeWitt’s Man Booker Prize-nominated 2011 novel, this is a superb film – offbeat, constantly surprising, alternately violent, funny and deeply poignant. It doesn’t reboot the western in the way that Eastwood’s Unforgiven did, or revolutionise it like Deadwood on the small screen, but it views the world of the American West with a captivatingly original perspective. The source material also allows Audiard to integrate another genre element in the mix – the buddy movie; though these bickering buddies are, in fact, brothers.  

Oregon, 1851. We first meet Eli Sisters (John C. Reilly) and his younger brother Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix) in the dead of night, the screen almost black, as the pair fire upon a gang inside a prairie house. Massively outnumbered, they nevertheless kill the whole gang without breaking sweat, dispensing each man with matter-of-fact brutality. “How many do you think you killed?” asks Eli. “Aw, I don’t know. Six or seven.” 

The scene sets a pattern for the film. Despite their name, the Sisters brothers have little contact with their feminine side; rather, they are highly efficient killers, in the employ of the mysterious Commodore (a sadly underused Rutger Hauer), their fearful reputations preceding them across the country.  

As is customary, they’re chalk and cheese: Eli softer, more introspective, protective of his brother, and beginning to wish for an end to their violent careers; Charlie brash, possibly psychotic, certainly alcoholic, fiercely committed to the Commodore and proud of the fact that he’s the more favoured of the two. Indeed, as they embark on their next assignment, he has been made “lead man”, complete with a new horse, much to the chagrin of his older brother.  Their task: to find a prospector, the delightfully named Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed), extract his new method for divining gold then kill him. The Commodore’s scout John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal, pictured above, with Ahmed) has eyes on Warm as the prospector makes his way west towards California. He will keep the brothers in the loop by letter, until they can join him.  

Much of the film follows the standard western structure of the cross-country pursuit, switching between the brothers and their often bullet-ridden encounters, and the growing relationship between Morris and Warm, spy and his prey, who are both educated, sensitive men at odds with the rough and ready world around them.  

Along the way, Audiard and his team vividly bring this world to life, from the newly formed Gold Rush camps to the fledgling towns to the thriving metropolis that is San Francisco. The detailing is reminiscent of Deadwood's evocation of a developing society, whether it’s Eli sampling the ethnic food of the European migrants lingering on the margins and discovering the minty possibilities of the toothbrush, or the newfangled lavatory of a swish San Fran hotel.We're never allowed to forget how violence and greed mark the terrain, and there are some very visceral moments – of shootings, scalding, sawing of limbs – that would make anyone flinch. At the same time, it’s the character interactions that dominate the film, especially as the Sisters catch up with the other pair. Interestingly, each of these men has father issues, which will come to create a touching bond between them.  

The actors are exemplary. Reilly and Phoenix bicker with the best of them, the former lending his customary sweetness to Eli, the latter his equally familiar, anarchic edge to Charlie. In the smaller roles, Gyllenhaal and Ahmed are extremely affecting, each lending a melancholy that reminds one of the difficult world in which these displaced characters are trying to survive.  

The pursuit is driven along by a fabulous score by Alexandre Desplat, urgent, often highly percussive, with something of a classic Seventies action movie feel to it. Benoît Debee skilfully shoots in dark, sombre tones, his lighting heightening the presence of sweat and dirt on these hygiene-challenged folk.  

Like the Coen brothers’ western portmanteau The Ballad of Buster ScraggsThe Sisters Brothers premiered at last year’s Venice film festival; the Coens nabbed the screenplay prize, Audiard director, a fair division of the spoils, though overall this is the more satisfying of the two. With its glorious coda, and the violent milieu notwithstanding, it feels like Audiard’s most lyrical film to date. 

Despite their name, the Sisters brothers have little contact with their feminine side

rating

Editor Rating: 
5
Average: 5 (1 vote)

Explore topics

Share this article

Add comment

Subscribe to theartsdesk.com

Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 10,000 pieces, we're asking for £3.95 per month or £30 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take an annual subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?

newsletter

Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters