The Sisters Brothers, the first English-language feature from French director Jacques Audiard, stars John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix as Eli and Charlie Sisters, two guns-for-hire caught in the middle of the California Gold Rush. Their latest mission, handed down from their employer known simply as The Commodore (Rutger Hauer), revolves around a scientist named Hermann Warm (Riz Ahmed), who has allegedly developed a chemical that makes underwater gold much easier to locate. Also hot on Warm’s trail is detective John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), who hopes to extract the secret formula from the chemist before the Sisters finish the job.
Advertising for this film has pitched it as a kind of buddy comedy between Reilly and Phoenix. With Reilly’s work alongside Will Ferrell in Talladega Nights and Step Brothers, the strategy seems sound.
The truth is that this is much more of a straight-ahead Western. Sure, it has a few quirks here and there, but the general tone is more stoic and somber than the trailer lets on. Having said that, I appreciated that this film stuck to its genre so thoroughly, especially in a time when the closest thing to Westerns that are typically released tend to be action movies that just happen to be set in the Old West.
The central conflict and its embedded themes are tied directly to the film’s setting in the mid-19th century, a time when so much of the country ran rampant with lawlessness while beacons of civility could be found in emerging cities. Eli finds himself drawn to these indicators of a burgeoning modern society; he’s taken with curiosity as he’s introduced to a toothbrush and giggles with glee as he flushes a toilet for the first time in their San Francisco hotel. Charlie, the younger and more impulsive of the brothers, is more skeptical of the changing times and doesn’t see how his violent urges could fit into a more decent and polite community.
Audiard unpacks these themes delicately across the movie’s 2-hour runtime. While the first half can feel a bit aimless and slow at times, the film’s second half picks up considerably as the four main characters converge in the wilderness.
While Reilly and Phoenix aren’t always convincing as actual brothers, the two fine actors do turn in reliably great performances as two men whose ideologies seem to be veering in different directions. Ahmed and Gyllenhaal do fine work as well, despite the latter’s slightly ponderous accent choice, but the screenplay doesn’t quite develop their characters as much as I would have liked.
The script, co-written by Audiard with Thomas Bidegain, not only provides some contemplative dialogue between the four men, but it also keeps the audience on their toes with some unexpected turns in the story. Aside from a couple comedic moments, the movie largely feels like a traditional Western and is often refreshingly old-fashioned. In its evocation of greed and its focus on camaraderie amongst characters in dire circumstances, I was reminded of the John Huston classic The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Like that film, The Sisters Brothers finishes strong by building to a final scene that perfectly ties up everything that came before it.
Coming to theaters this weekend:
Bohemian Rhapsody, starring Rami Malek and Lucy Boynton, is the highly anticipated biopic about the stadium rock band Queen and specifically its eccentric lead singer Freddie Mercury.
The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, starring Keira Knightley and Mackenzie Foy, is the latest adaptation of Tchaikovsky’s ballet about a young girl who is transported to a magical world.
Suspiria, starring Dakota Johnson and Tilda Swinton, is Luca Guadagnino’s remake of the 1977 giallo classic about a young dancer who joins a distinguished dance academy that holds disturbing secrets.