“The Sisters Brothers” entertainingly explores familial love, man’s propensity toward both good and evil and the first use of a toothbrush.
Jacques Audiard’s western dark comedy film, based on the Patrick deWitt novel of the same name, tells the story of brothers Charlie and Eli Sisters. The duo of assassins is sent by their boss to find and kill chemist Hermann Warm, who has created a formula to find gold among the futile prospecting. Detective John Morris throws a wrench into their plans, however, when Morris betrays the pair, deciding to protect and work with Hermann.
The film is slower and much more atmospheric than its classic western genre counterparts. The action set pieces are executed excellently, but oftentimes do not go where expected. Save for one extended, classic shootout, the tension and build up are more important and exciting than the actual payoff.
This subversion also lends greater excitement and weight to one of the main shootouts and was easily worth the delayed gratification. Benoît Debie’s cinematography is a marvel, using stunning atmospheric shots to establish tone, push the narrative forward and subtly give greater nuance to the characters and their relationships.
“The Sisters Brothers” reminds viewers that Joaquin Phoenix is one of the best actors working today, as he turns in a tour de force performance that is simultaneously enthralling, chilling and moving. There was not a false note in his portrayal of the violent yet amiable Charlie Sisters. Viewers find themselves both drawn to Charlie and repulsed by his actions.
When Phoenix is on camera, his commanding presence means viewers can scarcely look away. The ambitious alcoholic assassin is a complicated mess of contradictions and character development, and Phoenix has found a way to craft every aspect into a breathtaking performance.
Jake Gyllenhaal charms as the prim and pretentious private eye John Morris. He effectively captures the inner turmoil of a man beginning to feel the weight of his life of crime and hoping to become a better person. Gyllenhaal melds these disparate parts of Morris’s personality beautifully, seamlessly travelling through his character’s growth.
Riz Ahmed delights as Hermann Warm, by far the most moral of the protagonists. His idealism and hope are a welcome contrast to the violent and bleak world of gold prospecting.
John C. Reilly’s Eli Sisters, however, felt out of place during some moments in the film. While he was solid in his role as the more conflicted and moral of the eponymous Sisters brothers, his acting was never on the same level as his costars. This comparatively lackluster performance may be in part because of his role as a sort of everyman, while Gyllenhaal, Ahmed and Phoenix all have more complicated, interesting roles to display their considerable talents.
Audiard and Thomas Bidegain’s script is remarkably strong. The dialogue was clever, and each of the four protagonists had a distinct speech pattern, which added to their characterizations. The writing partners seem to know just when to make the audience laugh and when to allow the more heartfelt, dramatic moments to speak for themselves.
Still, there were some scenes featuring Reilly that felt out of place with the rest of the film because of their slapstick nature. These forced bouts of physical comedy, which furthered neither the narrative nor the character, felt as if Audiard was attempting to fit in Reilly’s comedic gifts by shoehorning in scenes that seemed more like outtakes from “Step Brothers” or “Talladega Nights.” The comedy featuring other actors was more nuanced and situational, using witty dialogue and dramatic irony to make the audience laugh. These moments often resulted from Phoenix’s drunken antics or Gyllenhaal’s slippery evasion.
What ultimately made the film work so beautifully is the chemistry between the main four actors. Phoenix and Reilly developed a genuine rapport that made them incredibly believable as brothers. The chemistry between Gyllenhaal and Ahmed, in their second film together after 2014’s “Nightcrawler,” was incredible.
The bond between their characters develops rapidly through their decision to go into business together, but the deep affection and admiration they feel toward one another is palpable in every scene, serving as an emotional center of the film. “The Sisters Brothers” can easily be looked at as a pair of love stories in a western backdrop, contrasting the fraying bond between the eponymous brothers with the love and respect between the new business partners.
“The Sisters Brothers” is an interpersonal dramedy existing in the universe of a western. The script’s nuanced characters provide plenty of room for the main ensemble to show off their acting talents, leading to a suspenseful, darkly funny take in the form of a gold-mining drama.