Photo courtesy of Annapura Pictures
John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix star in this smartly written western as brothers with the last name Sisters.
It seems filmmakers will never be finished with the vast setting that is the American West. This year saw the Coen brothers at work and play within the seemingly endless tropes of the genre, and another film, “The Sisters Brothers,” actually found more to say and to show on that dusty old Western trail. The film and its fantastic cast deliver plenty of what you would expect from a western, but even more of what you might not.
“The Sisters Brothers” is as caked with dirt and blood as the most traditional western, but the dialogue is clear and complex, the characters distinct and memorable. Their conversations are not anachronistic exactly, but they still feel contemporary, perhaps because so many westerns portray their characters as brutishly silent. But the men, and a few women, in this movie really discuss matters and explain themselves, and it’s kind of a revelation.
The brothers with the last name Sisters are played by John C. Reilly as the older brother, Eli, and Joaquin Phoenix as the drunkard younger brother, Charlie. They are skilled killers on the hunt for a particular prospector (Riz Ahmed) at the behest of their boss, the Commodore. Eli is losing his drive for their chosen profession, but he can’t bring himself to abandon his younger brother — for reasons that are explained in one of my favorite scenes, late in the film, in exactly the kind of well-written exchange that made me love this movie.
Adding another fascinating dimension to this darkly comic, fatalistic misadventure is our old favorite, sensitive cowboy Jake Gyllenhaal, also in the employ of the Commodore. But he is the brains of the operation, a verbose and weirdly accented detective sent ahead of the Sisters brothers to scout out and detain that mysterious prospector.
It’s not a spoiler to tell you that allegiances change throughout this film. But it is the beautifully paced, deeply textured portrayal of the relationships that give such vibrancy to the kind of story that is largely predicated on the meaninglessness and cheapness of life in such a violent and unpredictable time in this nation’s history. In keeping with this, some of the film’s violent happenings aren’t even shown, such as when Eli wakes, after being bitten in the mouth by a spider, to a huge bear Charlie has already killed, or another scene that opens with Charlie already fallen, hungover, from his horse. This seems the natural state of man and bear, in a heap on the ground. The inevitability of these exchanges is somehow emphasized by not explicitly showing them.
Reilly, in particular, creates a character that is a believable human, not just a walking cowboy hat with some guns. He most certainly has those things too, but he is also enamored of a newfangled item he recently discovered — the toothbrush. To say that he has a “soft side” does not really do justice to the nuance of his portrayal.
This satisfying, fascinating film is based on a novel I now feel I must read, also called “The Sisters Brothers,” by Canadian novelist Patrick deWitt. I have, however, read another book of his, “French Exit,” and it is as far from a western as possible, a pithy little book about a wealthy family down on their luck. Maybe this unusual range of authorial interests is part of the alchemy at work in this multilayered story.
The weirdness of the name “The Sisters Brothers” is not just a memorable title; it doubles up the sibling connection between two otherwise different men. I don’t know how this well-cast work escaped notice and missed acclaim — there were certainly plenty of potential Best Supporting Actor nominees here — because it was one of the most compelling and unusual films I have seen in quite some time, and the final shot was absolutely moving.
“The Sisters Brothers” is currently available to rent.
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