The Sisters Brothers (2018)

The Sisters Brothers is a western drama that’s firmly grounded in the conventions of the genre but manages to find new directions to explore.  It’s a story about a pair of brothers faced with decisions about what they want from their lives.

Eli and Charlie Sisters (John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix) are hired hitmen who work for the local boss.  They’re reliable and effective: in a shootout we see them mercilessly massacre the gang they’re staking out, the cold, harsh sound of gunfire ringing in the air.

Charlie is the younger of the two and the more violent; an alcoholic like his dead father.  Eli is kinder, but he resents that his brother has been nominated as the ‘lead man’ by the Commodore (a cameo by Rutger Hauer).

The film is set during the California gold rush.  The brothers are given a new job: to find and brutalise a man named Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed), a chemist who the Commodore believes has a formula that can help find gold.  They are preceded by a detective John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), whose job is to find Warm and send his location in Jackson to the hitmen, who follow in pursuit.  When Morris is convinced to team up with Warm in his gold pursuit, they make off to San Francisco with the Sisters Brothers in pursuit.

Warm is an idealist; he seems to have discovered a chemical means of finding gold, but for him the gold is a means to an end.  He dreams of establishing a community where the pursuit of profit and greed are vanquished, a sort of commune, and he needs wealth to establish this.  Warm has a way of making the other men imagine the best in themselves.

This western is directed and co-written by Jacques Audiard, who previously directed A ProphetRust and Bone, The Beat My Heart Skips and Read My Lips.  It’s his first English language film.   It’s very well crafted, it looks and feels like a classic western, and is both gripping and funny.  There are dusty towns, gunfights, horseback journeys across vast open country.

However, as is often the case in modern westerns, the film is also an inward journey for the protagonists.

This is a film about men’s dreams and about grown up responsibilities.  All the protagonists are in their mid-thirties and are faced with choices.  The brothers’ occupation as violent hit-men seemed predestined as a consequence of their troubled childhood; their father was a brutal, violent alcoholic who left the pair psychologically damaged, Charlie in particular whose mercilessness and insecurities suggest that he could become the man his father was. But now both are contemplating their own situation.

The two are well enough paid and can loot more money on the way, but they have settled into a way of life that neither are now content with.  Eli is contemplating stopping for a more settled life; he mentions running a store but doesn’t sound convinced himself.  Charlie by contrast seems to have ambitions to be a gangster.

Neither men at the start of the film seem ready to admit their plans to themselves, let alone to each other.  However, they’re forced to face up them when they encounter the two men they are pursuing.

The brothers’ strong relationship is touching.  They depend on and care for each other, even though the two men have very different characters.  The rapport between Phoenix and Reilly is believable and the two characters provide an interesting balance and contrast; Phoenix plays his familiar role of a taciturn and fragile brooder, but Reilly is the heart of the film and it’s his character that we identify with the most.  He is compassionate and kind.

The film is sometimes surprisingly gruesome given the amiability of the protagonists, but it’s not gratuitous and instead helps capture a sense of the time, when violence is brutal and medical capability is limited.

Audiard’s direction is understated and unshowy, and lets the story and the engaging characters take centre stage. The vulnerability of the characters maintains our interest, their quirks keep things light. It has an unusual tone, it’s neither a dark brooding western, nor is it a comedy, although it has elements of both. The themes of the destructiveness of violence and the potential to change are strongly conveyed.

It’s been a long time since westerns were big box office, the days of Unforgiven and Dances with Wolves. The Sisters Brothers is unlikely to attain such heights in popularity, but for western fans it’s a fresh, engaging take that respects is classical roots, and well worth seeing.

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