In 1851, Eli (John C. Reilly) is growing increasingly uncomfortable with his role as a gun for hire even as he shoots to kill at the drop of a hat. With his younger brother Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix) in charge, they've just slaughtered half a dozen men and caused a stable full of horses to burn down without finding their man, Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed). Eli's even begun to reconsider the horse he rides as more than mere transport as he continues to follow Charlie's lead. They are "The Sisters Brothers."
What an odd film, a Western that begins with brutality and works its way towards light, a surreal take on "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre," that is also a tale of brotherhood, often funny, but also tragic. Cowriter (with Thomas Bidegain)/director Jacques Audiard ("A Prophet," "Dheepan") adapting Patrick deWitt's novel, makes his English language debut with a property that was brought to him by its star (Reilly), and the French filmmaker's take on an American genre is modern and strangely spiritual.
Cinematographer Benoît Debie ("Enter the Void") has crafted a remarkable opening scene, total darkness flaring into life with pistol fire exchanged between two wooden structures. At the end of the carnage, Eli expresses regret, but they carry on with their job for the Commodore (Ruger Hauer), Warm purportedly a former employee who's stolen something. As they make their way through Oregon, including a bizarre stop at a brothel in Mayfield, another of the Commodore's men, John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal) has pegged and befriended Warm before betraying him. Charlie and Eli learn of Morris from Mayfield (trans actress Rebecca Root), the brothel owner they don't know quite what to make of, and head after him.
But something unexpected happens when Warm begins to question Morris, asking if he will be sticking around to observe his torture. The man is a chemist making his way towards San Francisco with his invention, a chemical which makes gold easily visible to those panning for it. But he also has a vision for a new society, one without greed. There is something about Warm's calm openness that invites confidences and Morris succumbs, joining Warm's cause. When they cross paths with the Sisters, Eli falls under Warm's spell as well, but Charlie's propensity for messing things up takes the entire expedition on a disastrous turn.
Everything about this film defies our expectations of the Western even as it ascribes to its rules. The younger, and clearly less fit for the job, brother is the leader (he hasn't been the same since he killed their father, Eli tells us). Warm is otherworldly, like a prophet from the future, the unveiling of his chemical in action more science fiction than horse opera. The characters' speech is odd, Gyllenhaal making Morris's what might be regarded as 'highfalutin.' Comedy comes from unexpected places, such as Eli's adoption of the newfangled toothbrush and powder (complete with illustrated instructions). Alexandre Desplat's score, like the film, is unconventional yet recognizably of the genre. The film's ending is like the end of a fairy tale, a lullaby, two little boys returning to the bosom of their mother (Carol Kane), at least after she threatens to shoot them, Debie filming one long take of scenes that bleed into one another as if on a revolving stage.
"The Sisters Brothers" has several disturbing scenes, horrific deaths of man and beast, and yet there's something weirdly wonderful about it as Eli finds his grace. It's about as unique a Western as you're likely to see.
Robin did not see this film.
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