There is something very satisfying about a good western. If done right it can strip away all pretense and distraction of modern day life, leaving you with a brilliant character study set in the wilderness. The environment is always its own character and can be an asset or hindrance to the protagonist, providing the conflict while also offering a solution that must be discovered.
If the characters aren’t interesting, there is very little to make up for that in a western outside of good scenery. So it benefits any production, but especially westerns, to get the best actors possible. If the story and script are also excellent, then you have the ingredients for a film that stands out among the others. Fortunately for this latest entry in the genre, the releases are few and far between. Still
In The Sisters Brothers, co-written and directed by Jacques Audiard, Eli Sisters (John C. Reilly) and his brother Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix) are hired assassins who run jobs across the northwest of 1851 America for a man known only as The Commodore (Rutger Hauer), a wealthy businessman who will see to it his enemies are dealt with by any means necessary. Eli is the more dependable of the two, while Charlie tends to take unnecessary risks and drinks to excess.
John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal) is also under the employ of The Commodore and is assigned as a tracker, learning the whereabouts of targets and informing the Sisters Brothers so they can finish the mission. When one such target named Hermann (Riz Ahmed), a scientist with aspirations set in the heart of California’s gold rush, is being pursued, it creates new challenges for Morris and the Sisters Brothers. If they are going to continue down this journey, they must first figure out who they really are and what it is they truly want. Such revelations can yield messy results.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from this film. I knew that it involved brothers obviously and that they would be getting into trouble a lot. The trailer made this movie seem like a comedy, a kind of Coen Brothers style film, and it has its humorous moments, but I would say it is mostly a drama that can make you laugh at the tragedy of its characters. It doesn’t cater to one emotion. Instead, it tries to get you to feel multiple things at once and does so in unpredictable ways.
The Sisters Brothers may be a western by the technical definition, but it bucks that genre and gives you a contemporary atmosphere you can relate to. Not that you couldn’t relate to a western. In fact, I think this movie does a great way of communicating the world we only know from movies, tv, and books and makes the time period feel closer to our own in some respects. For instance the bond between Eli and Charlie. Their relationship could come off hokey and insincere, yet I have this aching desire to see Charlie improve himself for Eli’s sake. Charlie goes around carrying a chip on his shoulder and pretending it isn’t there, with everyone else suffering because of it. Family can be a burden you are beholden to and so in that regard
I’ve seen John C. Reilly in a few dramatic performances and each time he impresses me. He spaces those performances out over his career so when they come out it’s a pleasant surprise. His portrayal of Eli Sisters is so full of heart and sincerity that it immediately grabs you. Joaquin Phoenix as Charlie Sisters is equally as engaging. Their chemistry together is as captivating as the direction of this film.
Jake Gyllenhaal is one of my favorite actors. He transforms himself for the role of John Morris and carries on this unique western persona that I found mesmerizing. His character documents his travels for posterity and in those writings, and Morris’ narration, you get a deeper sense of the man that spends his life looking for men who don’t want to be found. His journey is, I find, just as important as the one Eli and Charlie are on.
The setting of 1851 in Oregon and California is very interesting as America’s history is transitioning and evolving. I think one of the things that intrigue me about this film is how it introduces the new inventions of the time and how Eli and Charlie come across them. Usually, in period pieces, every little thing in a room or outside is established and nothing is a surprise to the characters because they’ve known about it or have at least a cursory knowledge of it. In this movie, the Sisters Brothers are constantly moving from one obscure place to another so they might miss a recent discovery now being sold in general stores or used at local hotels. It’s the fun little pieces of this nuanced story that I cherish.
The movie does feel longer than it should be, but because I felt the ending wasn’t nearly as strong as the rest of the film. If it had a stronger closing act, it could have warranted the two-hour runtime. Despite this, the overall journey is highly entertaining and doesn’t fall prey to silly plot devices to raise the stakes. The characters are the focus and they kept me invested.
The Sisters Brothers is a surprisingly great film with terrific performances from the entire cast. I did enjoy Riz Ahmed, but I don’t know if I got as much as I wanted from his character. His scenes with Jake Gyllenhaal’s John Morris are very good. I only wish I found Hermann as compelling. Still the story is purposely skewed towards Eli and Charlie so the scenes with Hermann are only meant to serve their journey and, in a more direct way, Morris. After a summer of bombastic blockbusters and intense action films, I’m actually relieved that fall has arrived and with it comes the bevy of indie films designed to affect your body, mind, and soul. I don’t know if this movie will bring about some philosophical discussion, but it certainly left me entertained and emotionally satisfied.
About The Sisters Brothers
Synopsis: In 1850s Oregon, a gold prospector is chased by the infamous duo of assassins, the Sisters brothers.
Director: Jacques Audiard
Writer: Jacques Audiard, Thomas Bidegain
Stars: John C. Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix, Jake Gyllenhaal, Riz Ahmed
Runtime: 2 Hours, 1 Minute