‘The Sisters Brothers’ Is Terrific And Upends The American Western


The Sisters Brothers is one of those movies that you finish watching, and your first reaction is “huh.” Now, in print, “huh,” can be read a few ways but is usually read as “huh?,” with a question mark. Like, “I don’t get that at all.” That’s not what I mean. This is more the realization form of “huh.” Like, the one you say while nodding a few times. The one you use when you just learned something new that makes sense. After The Sisters Brothers, that’s how I felt. Like I just learned something new about an entire movie genre.

After a movie screening, people often ask, “What did you think?” I usually try to make something up that sounds halfway smart, but the truth is I usually never know until a bit later. Movies are weird in that once we see them, we kind of live with them our whole lives. And our relationship changes with them as time goes on. It’s like meeting a human being, then being asked after knowing that human for two hours, “So, what do you think?” But this time I said, “I think this is a movie I will like more tomorrow, then even more the day after that.”

You see, The Sisters Brothers (based on the novel by Patrick deWitt) isn’t the slam-bam, kind of hilarious looking Western that the marketing might lead one to believe. The Sisters Brothers is a much more introspective movie than it leads on to be, but isn’t that surprising when you factor in that it’s directed by Jacques Audiard, making his first film in English.

John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix play Eli and Charlie Sisters – two Old West hitmen who are hired by their boss, the Commodore, to find a man named Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed), a chemist who has developed an advanced technique for finding gold.

Set in the Pacific Northwest, the first thing you will notice about The Sisters Brothers is that every gunshot is incredibly loud – just this booming noise that almost knocks you back with each round that contrasts sharply with the cinematography of the sweeping landscapes. John C. Reilly’s Eli is the more level-headed of the two brothers and this is more his movie than anyone’s – as he travels further west with his brother, Charlie, who is volatile, erratic, often drunk and, even more often, getting the two in trouble.

The brothers are actually chasing two men, the aforementioned Hermann, but also Jake Gyllenhaal’s John Morris. Gyllenhaal plays John Morris – a more refined, mysterious version of the Sisters Brothers – with a delicate voice that I wish he’d use to record audiobooks. John Morris had found Hermann and captured him, but decides Hermann’s plan for finding gold is just too good to pass up, so that pair heads to California with the Sisters Brothers on their tail.

There are times The Sisters Brothers feels like a really introspective version of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Here are all these marauders – a motley cast of characters – all in a chase for the prospect of finding precious treasure. And there are times when the movie really is funny, but these moments don’t come quite as often as you might think they do. The brothers aren’t quite as “zany” as the trailer might leave you to believe.

But the heart of the story are the brothers. Their relationship is complicated by the fact their old man abused them – which damaged Charlie the worst. They talk a lot, mostly about why they do what they do and if they even want to do it anymore. At one point they consider betraying the Commodore and Eli takes us through what the rest of their life will be like, constantly being wanted men, before they’d eventually have to kill the Commodore, then taking over for the Commodore. And not to mention just having to spread the word around about the legacy of the Sisters Brothers and what it even means to be a couple of gunslingers who are good at killing people. It all sounds so tiring to be a Sisters Brother. The Sisters Brothers doesn’t have the same vibe as, say, Unforgiven, but it has the same quality of making us look at things from a different perspective.

Joaquin Phoenix plays Charlie with that usual Phoenix flair that just makes a person anxious to watch – in that this guy can go from nice to deadly in a heartbeat. Which is to say it’s a performance we expect from Phoenix at this point. But it’s John C. Reilly’s Eli who becomes the heart and soul of this movie and reminds us of what a great dramatic actor Reilly is now that he’s best known for comedies. (It’s strange that Reilly is now best known for comedies when of Reilly’s first 26 film roles, only one, a small part in the Sean Penn film We’re No Angels, would be considered a full comedy. The first time we saw Reilly in a true comedic role was a cameo in the Adam Sandler movie, Anger Management. Then in 2006 after Talladega Nights: The Legend of Ricky Bobby, Reilly’s whole career changed. It’s kind of remarkable.) But, here, we are reminded, if not blatantly informed that, yes, John C. Reilly can carry a (mostly) drama.

And my prediction came true. As every day has gone by since I’ve seen The Sisters Brothers I think about it more and more. The Western can still have a place in contemporary cinema; it just looks a little different. We just learn new things about it. It makes us nod our head and say, “huh.”

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