The Sisters Brothers stars John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix as Eli and Charlie Sisters, bounty hunters for a man known as The Commodore (Rutger Hauer). Currently, they are on the trail of a chemist named Herman Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed) who is wanted by The Commodore because he claims to have a formula that makes panning for gold as easy as picking up rocks out of the stream.
Ahead of the brothers, also on Warm’s trail, is John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal) a detective who works for The Commodore and acts as tracker for the brothers who do the hard part of kidnapping, torturing and often killing the people The Commodore sets them after. This chase however, is a little different. Morris is wavering over whether he wants to do his job and turn Kermit over or join up with him and runoff.
As for the brothers, Eli is thinking of this run as his retirement. He’s fallen for a school marm and wants nothing more than to return home and open a store. Charlie, on the other hand, only concerns himself with the job and getting very, very drunk. Charlie likes killing people as a profession and hopes one day that he can become The Commodore so he can order other people around to kill on his behalf.
Much of that plot description is inferred from scraps of dialogue in The Sisters Brothers. This an eloquent and brilliant movie for what is not said as much as what is said. The characters indicate things about themselves and we sort of fill in the blanks based off of their characters. Each character is so wonderfully colorful that you can’t help but want to fill in the blanks and get to know them more.
John C. Reilly is perhaps the standout as Eli, the practical, yet tougher of the two brothers. Charlie makes up for his slightness with risk taking while the quieter Eli is genuinely the kind of guy you can look at and know not to mess with him. Deep down he’s a man who wants to be a respectable gentleman but as we come to see as the movie plays out, he’s a skilled and menacing killer when he needs to be.
Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance will divide audiences. Gyllenhaal chooses to play John Morris with a quirky vocal affectation that gives the impression of being pompous without being insufferable. Morris is a thoughtful character, a pragmatist and a dreamer in one. He never really wanted the life he has and appears to have a longing to be a writer rather than a detective, a skill he claims is honed and mastered, even as Warm figures him out with relative ease.
As for Riz Ahmed, I enjoyed how little is made of his ethnicity. It speaks to the way people could get by in the west for a time before civil society brought the class system to the west and with it the inherent racism of such. I don’t believe the invention Warm has come up with for getting to the gold is real but it is used brilliantly in the film’s tremendous third act which travels unexpected places among the four lead characters.
The Sisters Brothers was directed by Jacques Audiard, a French director who also co-wrote the screenplay with his frequent collaborator Thomas Bidegain. Audiard’s best known film is likely 2005’s A Prophet which was nominated for a foreign film Oscar that year. That film was a wrenching drama about Arab man desperately alone in a French prison and slowly drawn into servitude for a French criminal. Like The Sisters Brothers, the film is unpredictable and uncompromising.
Audiard loves his characters and he especially likes following his characters to unpredictable places. You may think you know where his stories are headed but he’s ready for you in the end. The ending of The Sisters Brothers will undoubtedly divide audiences who may want something more conventional and western-like. Remember, this is a mood piece, it’s about tone and character and the violence in the story extends from circumstance as much as it does from these remarkable characters.
The Sisters Brothers is one of my favorite westerns of recent memory. It’s a moody, atmospheric piece with strong violence but stronger characters. It’s a bloody western but also a witty one with smart characters and an unpredictable, perhaps a bit strange story. The story unfolds in a conventional fashion but nothing of these characters is typical or easily predicted. The film is funny and yet, when it needs to be brutal, it can be brutal.
The Sisters Brothers ranks as one of the better movies of 2018.
One last note about The Sisters Brothers, it has one of the best musical scores of the year. Alexandre Desplat provided the score for the film and it is an elegant and sparse mood piece that fits brilliantly into the narrative of the movie. The deep strings and stark piano riffs are abolutely gorgeous, especially early on as the story is developing and the music reflects the sun drenched mountains and dry deserts of the film's stark visuals. It's completely engrossing and I was lucky to be listening to it as I wrote this review.