Film review – The Sisters Brothers
The Sisters Brothers
How far would you go to protect your brother? Risk life and limb, you say? What if said brother were a perpetual troublemaker with a fondness for (constant) booze and a dangerous temper? To what lengths do you go? The Sisters Brothers examines this quandary with aplomb, but the conclusions it draws are anything but pretty.
Director Jacques Audiard (A Prophet, Rust and Bone) makes his English-language debut with The Sisters Brothers, starring John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix as the titular duo, Eli and Charlie.
The Sisters are bounty hunters shambling their way through the 1850’s Pacific Northwest, targeting outlaws under instruction of the mysterious “Commodore” (a near-unrecognizable Rutger Hauer.) Despite his line of work, Eli (Reilly) appears to be a decent man in search of something greater. He clutches and smells a shawl he travels with everywhere, and in the film’s most heartbreaking scene, employs a prostitute (Fargo‘s Allison Tollman) to don it and play-act everyday routines, hinting at a love long lost.
Charlie, on the other hand, is reckless to a fault. Fueled primarily by whiskey and ego, he instigates mayhem at just about every turn. But every time we begin to wonder why Eli hasn’t shot and buried him long ago rather than being the truce-maker in his countless bar brawls, we get some hint of their deep-seated camaraderie. A shared sense of humor and several mentions of a tyrannical father.
Brothers could almost be seen as a series of vignettes, some outright hilarious, others macabre and morose. It’s a tough balance to strike, but Audiard’s confidence in the material and lead stars keeps things from ever seeming pointlessly shaggy. And there is a through line; The Commodore sends The Sisters from Oregon to California in pursuit of, say it with me now, Hermann Kermit Warm (The Night Of‘s Riz Ahmed), a chemist who has invented a formula for singling out gold nuggets in rivers. Another Commodore recruit, John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), has been sent ahead of time to keep tabs on Warm, and a cautious partnership is born.
Gyllenhaal revels in the sometimes silly role of Morris. And boy does he go for broke with that British (?) accent. Although his orders are to keep an eye on Warm until The Sisters Brothers arrive to do their thing, Morris soon sees a way out of his rut in life, and a tentative bond takes hold of the group.
While I think I’ve hit on the main themes of The Sisters Brothers, the experience of watching it is difficult to describe. At once an amiable buddy Western, a rumination of loss and love, and a joltingly brutal shoot-em-up, Brothers has its dusty cake and eats it too. Phoenix is as committed as ever, and can take you from a laugh to a gasp of horror in the blink of an eye. But it’s Reilly who steals the show here. Thoughtful, brave even when in way over his head, he keeps plowing forward in hopes of catching that sunset.