The Sisters Brothers review: New western is a reassuringly old-fashioned affair

Jacques Audiard’s film remains engaging thanks to its exceptional central performances from John C Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix 

Geoffrey Macnab
Friday 05 April 2019 08:05
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The Sisters Brothers - Trailer

Director Jacques Audiard, 122 mins, starring: John C Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix, Jake Gyllenhaal, Riz Ahmed, Rebecca Root, Allison Tolman. Cert 15

Jacques Audiard’s The Sisters Brothers follows in a long tradition of European-made westerns. It has a primarily American cast, a French director and was shot in Spain. Its producers include everyone from its star, John C Reilly, to Belgian arthouse auteurs, the Dardenne brothers. In spite of its mongrel background, this is a reassuringly old-fashioned affair. Audiard isn’t trying to reinvent the western or to use it to make telling points about today’s society or how America has lost its way. Instead, in adapting Patrick deWitt’s Booker Prize-nominated novel for the screen, he is paying affectionate homage to a genre he clearly admires. There is plenty of humour and philosophising here but the basic ingredients aren’t that different to those found in the films of Raoul Walsh or John Ford.

Reilly’s performance as Eli Sisters, the older of the two brothers, is similar to his Oliver Hardy in the recent Stan & Ollie. He is a superb comic actor who knows just how to switch between humour and pathos. In one beautifully staged scene, we see Eli here fast asleep by the campfire as a spider crawls over his face. His mouth is wide open and so we know exactly where the spider is headed. Reilly also extracts maximum comic capital out of the scenes involving his discovery of one of the great new inventions of the modern age, namely the toothbrush.

Eli’s partner is his brother, Charlie Sisters (Joaquin Phoenix), who drinks far too much and gets terrible hangovers which cause him to vomit or fall off his horse. Eli and Charlie are quite the comic double act – or would be, if it wasn’t for their line of work. They’re killers for hire.

Audiard gives the film an elegiac feel that the brothers’ clowning does nothing to dissipate. Like hired guns in most westerns, the Sisters brothers have a very fatalistic approach to life. Eli may talk about retiring and opening up a store but Charlie realises that such a notion is completely fanciful given the trail of violence the brothers have left behind them. They’ve killed so many people they half expect retribution will soon be coming their way. Every victim has a father or brother who wants vengeance. If the brothers double cross their mysterious employer, “The Commodore”, other killers will be put on their trail.

The film begins in brutal and murky fashion with a night-time shootout that takes place in the pitch dark. It is hard to make out what is going on until suddenly the landscape is illuminated by a horse covered in flames galloping across the plains. (A barn has caught fire.) Both brothers are ruthless. They have no qualms about killing men already wounded and begging for mercy.

Although the body count is very high, Audiard doesn’t trivialise the violence. When someone is shot, we’ll hear a sickening sound as the bullet knocks the victim backwards.

The film is set in the early 1850s, at the height of Gold Rush fever. The Commodore has sent Eli and Charlie in pursuit of a chemist/prospector called Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed), who appears to have discovered a failsafe formula for detecting gold. Warm is also being pursued by a very dapper detective, John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), who keeps a diary, likes to quote Thoreau and is prey to existential despair. (He feels his life is like “an empty cylinder”.) The idea is to catch Warm, torture him and get the secret of his formula from him.

Most of the characters here come from troubled families. Eli and Charlie have the “foul blood” of their violent, drunken father running through their veins. Morris is likewise tormented by memories of childhood trauma. Very few women feature in the film, and those who do appear are strictly stock types: the saloon bar madam, the sweet-natured prostitute or the kindly old mother.

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The chemist Warm turns out to be an idealist who dreams of using his formula not to get rich himself but to finance a utopian community. We know, though, that this is only a pipe dream.

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As the Sisters brothers ride for days on end in pursuit of Warm, the film turns into a shaggy dog story. Events seem increasingly haphazard. One moment a bear will turn up; another, murderous varmints wearing racoon hats will emerge from the bushes. This may reflect the inchoate and violent nature of life in the old west but it doesn’t make for smooth storytelling. Audiard is more interested in exploring the relationship between the brothers than in trying to stoke up suspense. The humour can seem incongruous when it is seen next to so much bloodshed and darkness. There is something perverse in the way the filmmakers try to make us identify with characters who are, in fact, homicidal killers.

It’s a measure of the four exceptional central performances (from Reilly, Phoenix, Gyllenhaal and Ahmed) that the film remains so engaging in spite of its narrative digressions and moments of very bleak violence. Audiard serves up just what audiences would expect in a tale from the wild frontier – wagon trains, rugged landscapes, galloping horses, decadent saloon bars and plenty of shootouts. Alongside the action, the director also shows us his characters’ inner lives. In doing so, he proves again that the western is far more durable and flexible as a genre than sceptics would have us believe.

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