Note: This is a repost of my The Sisters Brothers review from the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival. The film is now playing in limited release.
Making a unique Western is a difficult task. But then again not every Western has Patrick deWitt’s melancholic, strange novel The Sisters Brothers as its source material. Director Jacques Audiard’s adaptation of the book stays true to its offbeat tone, rich characters, and plot-lite structure, but a tremendous quartet of actors even elevate deWitt’s pages at times, resulting in a fascinating, poetic, funny, and thought-provoking journey.
The Sisters Brothers opens in 1851 Oregon, and we meet our two main characters—brothers Eli Sisters (John C. Reilly) and Charlie Sisters (Joaquin Phoenix)—in the dead of night, as they riddle a quiet, dark house with bullets. The Sisters Brothers, you see, are a pair of notorious hitmen, and they work for a man named The Commodore. When the story begins, they’ve just received a new job. They’re to track down a prospector named Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed) who has apparently stolen from their boss. The Sisters Brothers are a few days out, so an intelligent detective named John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal) has been tasked with capturing and holding the prospector until the hitmen arrive to do the dirty work.
This is the basic plot of The Sisters Brothers, but this is one of those stories where the journey matters more than the destination. The script—adapted by Audiard and Thomas Bidegain—delights in little detours that serve to further enrich the characters. Plot-wise, there’s not really a reason for Eli to swallow a spider and become violently ill. But in practice, the ordeal reveals far more about Eli, Charlie, and their relationship than any traditional piece of exposition or narration ever could.
Indeed, The Sisters Brothers is a film about moments, and it’s in those moments where the story shines. A moment where Hermann’s loneliness is cracked open by the kindness of a stranger; a moment where Eli decides to purchase a new invention called a toothbrush; or a moment where Charlie looks truly, fully happy for the first time in a long while.
The film is true to the book in that the story has a tendency to meander, which may test the patience of some viewers, But if you’re hooked into the characters, you’ll savor each and every second spent with these imperfect, incomplete souls. Each performance is special in its own way. Phoenix showcases a swagger we haven’t seen from the performer in years, but it’s clear Charlie’s bite is hiding old wounds; Gyllenhaal is perfectly cast as a pretentious man who thinks himself better than the work he’s actually doing; and Ahmed continues to prove he’s one of the best actors working today—the early quiet scenes between him and Gyllenhaal (Nightcrawler reunion!) are among the film’s best.
And then we have Reilly, who is really the standout of the film. While Reilly may be known to moviegoers of a certain age as the goofball from Step Brothers or Tim and Eric, his heartbreaking, sensitive turn in The Sisters Brothers is a terrific reminder that he is also a tremendous dramatic talent. Indeed, Reilly used to be the go-to for a solid supporting actor in films like Chicago and The Aviator, and in The Sisters Brothers he shines tremendously in a role that’s essentially the beating heart of the story.
Working with cinematographer Benoît Debie, Audiard shoots The Sisters Brothers in a very naturalistic but elegant manner. There’s a lot of natural light used that helps keep the focus on the characters at hand and not the fancy setups, and I have to note that the gun fights are particularly explosive and violent. A narrative as complex as The Sisters Brothers was not an easy choice of material for the French filmmaker’s English-language debut, but he was more than up for the challenge and succeeds quite well.
The Sisters Brothers is a story about a lot of things. Family, violence, regret, and the longing for something better—it’s no coincidence that the story plays out against the backdrop of the gold rush. And while a somewhat languid pace and lack of exposition may put some viewers off, if you’re willing to soak in a character-rich Western that provides no easy answers or conclusions, you’ll find The Sisters Brothers a pleasant experience indeed.
The Sisters Brothers is now playing in limited release.