The eponymous Sisters brothers are Eli (John C. Reilly) and Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix), a pair of bounty hunters under the command of the enigmatic Commodore. They kill people and happen to be very good at it, although Charlie remains perpetually disappointed that their reputation does not precede them. Their latest job is to assist detective John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal) in taking care of a prospector (Riz Ahmed) who has stolen from their boss.
Based on the award-winning novel by Patrick deWitt, The Sisters Brothers can best be described, as the book was to me by a friend, as ‘Cormac McCarthy with jokes’. The sheer oddness of the tone — veering from goofy to bleak to melancholic to sweet and back again — could so easily have sent this film soaring into chaos. That Audiard manages to make these switches seem entirely organic is a testament to his surgeon-like precision. This kind of plot is nothing new for film or the Western genre but the devil is in the details. The central narrative takes giddy detours into asides such as Eli discovering a toothbrush for the first time or their introduction to indoor bathrooms. There are gunfights a-plenty but this is primarily a film about men in the wilderness talking about their feelings and finding companionship when it’s needed the most.
The movie is the pet project of John C. Reilly, who optioned the film rights of deWitt’s novel, shepherded Audiard into the director’s gig and helped compile this stellar cast. It’s clear why he prized this story so much, as the role of Eli Sisters finally gives him something worthy of his sinfully underrated talents. Eli, the older brother, is the one burdened not only with the responsibility of his sibling but the smothering guilt over his line of work and his excellence in that field. He desperately seeks out moments of tenderness, be it through his touching relationship with his ailing horse or trying to procure the girlfriend experience from a tavern sex worker. A moment of wonder involving a toothbrush proves a stand-out as well as a reminder of Reilly’s gifted expressiveness. It’s oft forgotten that Reilly got his start in dramas like Magnolia and Hard Eight before becoming a Frat Pack adjacent goofball for films like Step Brothers. Indeed, he’s been so good at comedy for so long that we seem to have forgotten how wonderful he is in dramatic parts.
The three other co-leads also excel in their parts. Riz Ahmed is an optimistic chemist who believes his unstable formula for finding gold in rivers will lead to a utopian society and he plays the wonderfully named Herman Kermit Warm with an eagerness that makes his outlandish plans seem wholly appealing. Jake Gyllenhaal commits to an almost regal accent that emphasizes his character’s good standing and how out of place he is among the thieves and murderers he does business with. It’s hardly the surprise of the century to hear that Joaquin Phoenix puts in another great performance (he’s already given 2018 one of the year’s best thanks to You Were Never Really Here) but seldom has he chewed at a role with such relish. He is clearly having the absolute time of his life as a hard-drinking sociopathic numpty who garners some of the film’s biggest laughs. Between this and Inherent Vice, the man needs to do more comedic roles where he gets to pratfall.
The meandering nature of the film may put off some, and the first half isn’t as focused as the second, although those final five minutes offer an immensely satisfying moment of heart. While I laughed out loud several times with this, the overall movie is a more introspective viewing experience and that may throw off some viewers taken in by the goofy trailer set to Tainted Love. Still, for a film so seemingly uninterested in appealing to the masses, The Sisters Brothers has immense mainstream appeal. The Western once dominated Hollywood and every few years we get headlines on the possible revival of the genre. If the future of these narratives is in films like The Sisters Brothers then it’s in safe hands.
The Sisters Brothers will be released in America on September 21st.