It’s time to take a break from one comfort genre for another in the form of a Western. For all the talk of the genre being dead, it’s never actually gone away either in modernized (such as Hell or High Water) or its more traditional 19th century setting (Hostiles). The Sisters Brothers comes from Jacques Audiard, director of A Prophet, Rust and Bone, and Dheepan, making his English language debut. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many production studios attached to one film, but the most notable name attached is the in all likelihood soon to be dead Annapurna Pictures, which has made it a habit to throw far too much money at terrible investments even though it allows for some riskier films to be made.
The too cute by a half title refers to a pair of brothers played by John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix as respectively Eli and Charlie Sisters. On the surface, they take the pretty standard roles you’d expect. One, the older more responsible one, the other the drunk always getting into trouble, but the two actors and their relationship make it far more interesting than that. Working for the Commodore as hitmen, debt collectors, and whatever else needs getting done, Charlie is the one who is nominally appointed as the lead, but it seems to be more because he’s the one who openly takes pride in their work and brags about it. Eli would rather keep things quiet and professional, with a girlfriend at home that he intends to return to. Despite constantly appearing to show such kindness and being called a nice guy, he’s still someone who maintains that slight sense of humor between his bursts of violence (even if that violence is largely by circumstance) and the film never hides that his intelligence is merely relative.
Their latest task involves them tracking down a man named Hermann Warm (Riz Ahmed fresh off Venom) for their boss and bring him back. After their last mission ended messily, their boss insists on hiring a point man John Morris (Ahmed’s Nightcrawler co-star Jake Gyllenhaal) to get out ahead of them, identify the target, and hold him. Morris’s segments are accompanied by a voiceover as he writes his stories in his journal and these segments don’t work nearly as well. Part of it is Gyllenhaal’s ridiculous accent, but more than that it’s how he just doesn’t fit as well tonally. The story is at its best when it focuses on the titular brothers and those who intersect with them.
While the 1851 in the wake of the gold rush setting isn’t unique for the genre, it’s nice change of pace from all the late 19th, early 20th century films that have tended to populate modern westerns. The kinds that act as a deconstruction of the western genre itself and the masculine ideal. There’s nothing wrong with that type of film, but The Sister’s Brothers takes a different route. That’s not to say that the film completely escapes its genre forebears, but it naturally swerves enough to allow one to appreciate its thoughtful lightly comedic tone that is purposefully paced.
Reilly’s performance is fantastic, and the film is worth seeing at the very least for it. You can feel every emotion on his face, the small bits of humor that he manages to throw in, and the way he imbues his character with far more depth than you’d expect. The film has the great visuals you’d expect of a western, another fine Alexandre Desplat score, and the reliably compelling Riz Ahmed performance he turns in with regularity, but this is Reilly’s movie. There’s a number of character arcs to go around, but it’s Eli Sister’s (thankfully the name is not a running joke in the movie) whose feels the most fully formed and unique.