Judging it from its name and cast list of colourfully monikered characters, you would be justified in assuming that The Sisters Brothers is a silly, whimsical proposition. However, though it may be a lighter western than many of its genre contemporaries, Jacques Audiard’s English-language debut is brilliant, in fact, for its sincerity. Where most filmmakers look at the Old West as a way to explore lonely lives and violent deaths, Audiard has instead done something far more original – he dares to hope and see the potential for kindness in this generally most unforgiving and macho of environments.
Adapting the novel by Patrick deWitt, Audiard and writer Thomas Bidegain’s central story is traditional, even old-fashioned, but told exceptionally well. Eli and Charlie Sisters (John C Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix) are the best bounty hunters in the west, but start to lose loyalty to their employer on a mission to kidnap, torture, and kill chemist Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed) and his travel companion John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal). Along the way, the two pairs encounter the various odd slices of civilisation created by the Gold Rush, though there are very few characters to speak of outside of the lead four.
With a line-up like The Sisters Brothers has, though, who needs anyone else? Four of the very best actors working today form the film’s heart, and while Gyllenhaal and Ahmed undoubtedly play second fiddle to Reilly and Phoenix, they’re still great company. Reilly is brilliant, his performance here almost up there with his work for Paul Thomas Anderson, giving weight and history to every bit of dialogue, all the while keeping the balance between drama and comedy. The Sisters Brothers is a very funny film, and the chemistry and interplay between Reilly and Phoenix is a huge part of that.
Despite being the more willing killer, Phoenix’s Charlie is absolutely the baby brother, petulant and unable to communicate exactly how he feels about Eli without resorting to cheap jokes. One near-wordless exchange between the two is a beautiful moment of quiet storytelling and familial love, as through little more than half-smiles, Eli expresses how proud he is of Charlie, and Phoenix’s reaction is simply adorable. Charlie clearly idolises his big brother, and his unabashed approval means the world to him. The strength of the two actors ensures that a simple lazy day by the river is as compelling as any shootout or horseback chase.
But shootouts there must be, and the world the brothers inhabit is a deadly one. Each Sister is an accomplished gunman, and together they’re pretty much unstoppable, Audiard engaging more through clever visuals than tense drama. Fire is exchanged in an otherwise pitch black night, and in one hilarious woodland fight, Charlie’s wardrobe changes throughout as he collects various items from his fallen foes. The biggest dangers are the wilderness and Charlie’s predilection for booze. Eli falls victim to a spider bite in one particularly squirm-inducing scene, the resultant swelling and bloody vomiting forcing you to watch between your fingers.
We expect a modern western to look fantastic, and The Sisters Brothers delivers on this front and then goes above and beyond with its score by Alexandre Desplat. He rises above the common aping of Morricone and other classic western composers to deliver something that’s both original to the genre yet also perfectly fitting for a wilderness adventure. As Eli and Charlie get closer to the coast, frontier outposts make way for more advanced settlements, and the brothers’ wide-eyed wonder at the metropolis of San Francisco is hugely endearing, their excitement about their hotel with both hot water and a flushing toilet positively contagious.
Though he might take a back seat to the Sisters’ adventure, Ahmed’s Hermann Warm is the key ingredient in the heart of the film. He seeks to make his fortune in order to found a perfect socialist utopia in Texas, and his optimistic humanism is slowly absorbed by everyone he comes across, transforming them into better people. The Sisters Brothers, more than any recent western other than Slow West, truly cares about people and wants the best for them, even as it realises that greed and idiocy-caused death and injury are an inevitability in the untamed country.
Audiard and Bidegain commit fully to this humanism. If they had wavered, they’d have made a lesser, more generic film, but in combining a love of life with a touching central relationship that will resonate profoundly with anyone with siblings, The Sisters Brothers is a rare, wonderful thing. It’s a western that remembers the men it follows were pioneers (a recurring gag involving the newly invented toothbrush has a stellar payoff), and it takes their forward thinking and runs with it.