For the first half of the 20th century, you couldn’t throw a popcorn kernel without hitting a western in the cinemas. It was the American genre for such a long time. As the American western started to die, you got revisionist westerns and European westerns, which sought to explore the mythos of the Wild West through the lens of contemplative narratives and fantastical scenarios. Euro westerns are less about the actual Old West than they are about the world’s perception of the Old West via American movies. And now, when you get a western these days, it’s able to do things you’d never have seen in the past, as in Jacques Audiard’s The Sisters Brothers.
Audiard and his co-writer Thomas Bidegain are the artists behind films like A Prophet, Rust and Bone, and Dheepan, and here they turn their sights on a rather unusual look at the western–based on the novel by Patrick DeWitt–one where gunfights are shot for maximum confusion, major character conflicts are resolved off screen, and the saddest moments involve the mourning of animals. It feels very French.
The titular siblings are Eli (John C. Reilly) and Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix), a pair of bounty hunters who exclusively work for a wealthy and powerful man known as the Commodore. They do his dirty work, and generally just kill a lot of people. Charlie is a violent and brash man who’s perfectly happy in this line of work, getting the infamous reputation he thinks the Sisters Brothers deserve, but Eli, much more sensitive and thoughtful, longs for a quiet life. These differences eventually come to a head during their latest task.
They’re following the notes left by a detective named John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), an educated, well-spoken man who acts as the Commodore’s recon man, as he tracks a nobody named Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed) from Oregon to San Francisco, who evidently has found the key to prospecting for gold, a key that the Commodore wants very badly. But Morris and Warm are kindred spirits, and it begins to look like the Sisters Brothers’ job won’t be as easy as they thought.
While The Sisters Brothers has scenes and plot points that feel very typical of an action western, and there’s no shortage of gunfighting, most of it us obscured by darkness, or only depicted via sounds off screen. The killing is part of the lives of these men and is as perfunctory as making breakfast, and so Audiard doesn’t spend much time or energy to glorify this. What he does spend a lot of time on is the things that separate Eli from Charlie; Charlie drinks himself sick every night and brags about their exploits, while Eli discovers the joys of a toothbrush and relishes in the smell of a shawl a woman gave him long ago. And what’s an older brother to do when your younger brother is a sociopath?
All four of the main characters are running from something, but rather than make a thriller out of it, the movie spends its time exploring who they are because of their pasts. What makes a man become a killer, and what does it say that someone as educated and erudite as Morris, as kind and warm as Eli, and as vile and heartless as Charlie can all basically be in the same business? They’re looking for more than they have, but currently have no way of getting it, and the movie spends a lot of shoe leather on what they do in between towns, just thinking and talking and existing. Would, as Morris says, he give up the freedom of the wilderness for the comfort and luxury of the city? And yet, it doesn’t seem to be “freedom” that any of them actually have.
The cast is excellent across the board, but Reilly is truly the heart and soul of the movie. It was he who optioned DeWitt’s novel back in 2011 and is one of the film’s credited producers. He clearly saw in Eli Sisters a character he could embody perfectly, and he does. When you first meet the brothers, during a violent nighttime raid of a farmhouse, you think Eli is going to end up being the slovenly buffoon, but very quickly it becomes clear he’s the one with the brain and skill, and is the reason Charlie has succeeded all this time. And yet he never flaunts it, and in fact is often derided for being the useless one. It’s a character and a performance you never see in a western and Reilly owns it.
The Sisters Brothers is a movie you should go into without the expectation of what a western “should” be and instead enjoy the journey, as the comedy and tragedy of these people play out during the days-long journey. It’s one well worth taking.