The films of Jacques Audiard are often about the hearts within men who struggle to hide their sensitivity. A Prophet centered around a father and son reuniting in prison, Rust & Bone featured a fighter learning to love, and Dheepan is about a caretaker trying to avoid the brutal like he left behind. For his first English language film, it makes sense that Audiard (with frequent cowriter Thomas Bidegain) would attempt to tackle the typically macho 1850s Wild West with his usual delicate touch in The Sisters Brothers. The result is a compelling take on maybe the most American of film genres, yet The Sisters Brothers always has a sense of familiarity underneath that keeps the film from meeting its ambitions.
Charlie and Eli Sisters (Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly) are the infamous Sisters brothers, a pair of for-hire killers working for the bigwig Commodore (Rutger Hauer). The latest target for the Sisters is scientist Hermann Kermit Worm (Riz Ahmed), who claims to have found an easier way to find gold. John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal) – a detective also hired by the Commodore – has tracked down Worm and plans on handing him over to the Sisters. After hearing of Worm’s discovery and his enlightened world views, Morris soon bonds with Worm and turns his back on the Commodore’s wishes.
The Sisters Brothers – as is popular with the typical revisionist Western – follows the rising modernity of America and the fading out of the cowboy way of living. Charlie Sisters knows he’s good at the business of killing and doesn’t see a reason to abandon his livelihood, while Eli is slowly dipping his toe into this newer way of life. Eli wants to quit murdering and takes delight in simple pleasures, like a flushing toilet or a new toothbrush. On the other hand, Worm and Morris already stick out in the Gold Rush Oregon and California of the 1850s, as they plan on using their gold-detecting skills to begin an idealized community in Dallas. They crave the future in a land that moves too slow for their elevated way of thinking.
The Sisters Brothers is at its best when these four men eventually interact and their world views clash. It’s the quieter moments that shine, as characters discuss their ideas for the future, their ambitions, and their sordid pasts. Audiard and Bidegain are far more interested in the relationship dynamics between these four men, be it as brothers or newfound friends. For example, almost every gunfight either takes place at a distance – like the shootout that the film begins with – or takes place offscreen. In one scene, Eli wakes up to discover that his brother has killed a bear while he slept. The actual fight doesn’t matter to Audiard, but rather what Charlie protecting his brother means to this dynamic.
Yet with the revisionist Western becoming the norm post-Unforgiven, much of The Sisters Brothers’ story is recognizable. The narrative is episodic in the way its told, and the underlying dread and matter-of-fact murders throughout the film leave a sense of foreboding trepidation for how it will end. The story is always enjoyable and engaging, but never feels like its quite reaching its potential.
One reason might be the stellar cast that The Sisters Brothers has united that almost suggests importance. Ahmed and Reilly are particular standouts, showing kindness in a land that is harsh at every turn. But still, Reilly has played this type of lovable lug before, and despite being one of the finest actors of his generation, Phoenix isn’t surprising anyone that he can play this type of maniacal unpredictability. Everyone is solid, but rarely does it seem like the cast is playing against type.
Still, it’s when Audiard and his cast play with what they’re best known for that The Sisters Brothers truly excels. When Eli asks a prostitute (Alison Tolman) to recreate a conversation he had with a girl he cares for back home, both Audiard and Reilly are utilizing the vulnerability that they’ve become known for to great affect. The prostitute sees the compassion in Eli that seems almost foreign to her, and it’s that compassion among the bloodshed that does make The Sisters Brothers stand out.
As a story of growth in the face of upcoming change, The Sisters Brothers is both impactful and still a bit customary. But when it wears its heart on its sleeve with its story of humanity in a remorseless world, The Sisters Brothers shines like gold.