The Sisters Brothers
Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly play a pair of gunslinging brothers in the adaptation of Patrick deWitt’s western novel.
French film director and screenwriter Jacques Audiard, the man behind the acclaimed Rust and Bone and Dheepan, makes his English language debut with The Sisters Brothers.
Surrounding himself with an impressive assembly of actors, Audiard tackles author Patrick deWitt’s darkly comic Western novel of the same name.
In the American West in 1851, gunfighter brothers Eli and Charlie Sisters (Reilly and Phoenix) are hired by the mysterious Commodore to kill Hermann Warm (Ahmed), a man with an invaluable invention.
Upon first glance, The Sisters Brothers could be mistaken for your average Western, with baron landscapes and hire-riding, gun-toting men in pursuit of a bounty. However, the film is much more offbeat and unconventional than its genre suggests.
Of course, plenty of blood is shed and the territory seems as turbulent as ever, but the eponymous siblings and their dynamic strives, and succeeds, to keep things fresh.
Eli, the older of the Sisters brothers, is a sensitive soul who was flung into the gunfighting life as a way of protecting his younger brother, the hot-headed and heavy-drinking Charlie. Charlie seems to relish the lifestyle and has ambitions to be the Commodore’s successor.
Meanwhile, Eli pines for a lost love and looks forward to the day when he can hang up his spurs and gun. This culture clash sparks tension between the brothers but they still manage to be effective guns-for-hire, even if their methods are unorthodox.
They rarely have a concrete plan and tend to improvise their heists, ambushes and means of survival but the results are undeniable, and they always emerge as the victors.
However, along the way, they encounter obstacles that could derail their journey, such as lame and injured horses, Charlie’s multiple drunken stupors and a nearly-lethal spider bite.
These may not sound like moments for levity to present itself, but they do often rouse laughs and highlight the paucity of glamour in their profession. Although, they also emphasise the film’s tonal issues; The Sisters Brothers is too-light hearted to be considered a serious drama and too heavy to be classed as a comedy.
The film ambles in this grey area for the majority of its runtime and creates for an often-jarring experience. In this sense, it fails to capture the magnificence of the novel that excels in both its dark humour and emotional resonance.
The novel also strikes the right balance of switching narratives between the Sisters brothers’ pursuit of Warm and Warm’s attempt to evade capture with the help and guidance of John Morris (Gyllenhaal). Whilst the film favours the journey of the odd-couple brothers, the rapport of Warm and Morris is touching and well developed.
When Eli and Charlie finally catch up with and Morris, the four men are forced to form an uneasy alliance as they ward off a band of men sent by the notorious and powerful Ms. Mayfield with the aim of killing Warm.
Morris and Warm share the genius of Warm’s invention with the brothers in return for their help and the quartet establish a surprising camaraderie.
The film’s pacing slows as we see their bond develop, with Eli confiding in Warm about his childhood and abusive father. This whole sequence is a delight and the culmination of their brief but meaningful time together earns its emotional resolution.