The Sisters Brothers Review: Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly Upend the Western

The Sisters Brothers

Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly are a pair of offbeat gunslingers in Jacques Audiard's unconventional, gorgeously energetic Western.

The American Western has been told in every conceivable fashion, but they often feature the same sort of lead – a man who, when faced with great adversity, buries all personal feelings and heroically pushes on to accomplish his goal. This archetype of the stoic, John Wayne school of cowboy has been such a long-standing archetype, but some of the most fascinating revisionist Westerns of the last few years have bucked that trend – Slow West and Damsel being just two recent examples. However, it’s hard to think of a film that shows us the trend of sensitive outlaws the same way as Jacques Audiard’s The Sisters Brothers, this simple shift of character transforming the Western into that most curious of creatures: a violent movie about empathy, optimism, and kindness.

The Sisters Brothers are a pair of veteran guns for hire. The eldest Eli (John C. Reilly), the more sensitive of the two, is at the point of wanting out of this life. He yearns for love, a calm life, and to be a generally better person. As for Charlie Sisters (Joaquin Phoenix), this is a life he adores (or at least pretends to). He searches for any fight he can, drinks to excess, and carries a charming, borderline psychopathy that makes him both lovable and terrifying. For their latest contract, they are sent to chase down chemist Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed, Nightcrawler), who has concocted a solution that, when poured into a river, illuminates any gold present. A high-bred scout named John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal, also Nightcrawler) has been sent ahead of the Sisters Brothers to track down Warm. However, Warm and Morris become friends, and decide to outrun the brothers together and mine for gold on their own.  

Audiard (Dheepan) makes a wonderful impression with his American debut. From the second the credits begin, he proves himself as a master of playing with expectations, beginning with absurd comedy only to shift into a gunfight that’s sure to be an instant classic. His command of tone is Sisters’ greatest asset, keeping the comedic and tense elements within arm’s length in every scene. While you may be laughing at one moment, it always feels like the characters are a blink away from complete tragedy. Of course, these subversions still fit firmly within the visual legacy of the Western, the lush cinematography of Benoît Debie (a longtime collaborator of Gaspar Noé) making the Oregonian Rockies pop from the screen..

Of course, all of this is anchored by a superlative cast, each of the four leads easily justifying any awards consideration. Each bring such a wonderful flair to their characters that, when the four finally coalesce, their unexpected friendship feels inevitable.  Phoenix,who has played men of violence with such precision in the past (see You Were Never Really Here earlier this year), is finally given a role where that ferocity isn’t guided by hatred or pleasure, but childhood trauma. His ability to balance his veneer of toxic masculinity with the cauldron of genuine sadness underneath is exceptionally heartbreaking. Reilly’s inner guilt, Phoenix’s secret suffering, Gyllenhaal’s quest for self-love, and Ahmed’s focused optimism help diffuse the expected tension that grows throughout the film and replaces it with the fear of not knowing what cruelty may be on the horizon. Special notice should also be given to Rebecca Root’s gleeful, confident portrayal of Mayfield, the film’s scene-stealing tertiary villain.

As brilliant as Sisters Brothers is, there are a few stumbling points along its dusty trail – mostly in brief asides that feel like abrupt changes due to studio notes. There are a few shifts in direction that, if were done more than once, would have felt more like a stylistic choice. As purposeful as Audiard’s direction is, it would be hard to believe that wasn’t his plan -but his vision seems to have been cut to ensure that the film hit a tight two hour run-time. One moment in which Charlie breaks the fourth wall to dump some exposition on us is an egregious example – the shot itself is great, but in the grand scheme of things, it feels like it’s addressing a focus group more than the story. It’s a shame, because the story could have easily sustained another 15 minutes. Instead, we are left with referenced conversations, a swifter than fitting escalation of Morris and Herman’s relationship, and the apparent cutting of all of Rutger Hauer’s lines.

Despite these brief hiccups, The Sisters Brothers remains a fascinating, hilarious, and touching take on the Western. To take a genre that is guided by outdated ideas of what makes a man and subtly shift the focus to the battle of emotions, is a brilliant move that feels organic to the times we’re living in. For The Sisters Brothers the great battle of the American cowboy isn’t just about the shoot outs and their struggles in the wilderness, but the emotions they so often attempt to bury.

The Sisters Brothers sidles up to theaters everywhere Friday, September 28th.

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