Jacques Audiard begins his first English-language film with a carefully choreographed, night-time shootout set against a remote, western landscape. The Sisters Brothers may initially seem like a change of pace for the slow-burn, humanist director, but this opening set piece gives way to a slow, more contemplative narrative with small bursts of violence. While the pace is sometimes a little too rambling for its own good, Audiard’s foray into the western genre is kept afloat by its central quartet’s engaging chemistry and the film’s resistance to adhere to convention.
Eli (John C. Reilly) and Charlie Sisters (Joaquin Phoenix) work as hitmen in 1850s Oregon. Although connected through blood the brothers have quite different outlooks on life. Charlie is a heavy drinker who embraces the violence of his occupation while Eli is a gentler, more introspective soul, dreaming of a simpler life. Under the employment of mysterious crime boss, the Commodore (Rutger Hauer), the brothers are assigned with tracking down and dispatching of well-mannered chemist Hermann (Riz Ahmed) for reasons which only slowly become apparent to the duo. Also in pursuit of Hermann, and under the Commodore’s orders to deliver the chemist to the ruthless Sisters brothers, is British scout Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal). This cat-and-mouse game soon takes on a different dimension when the four central figures finally meet and the lucrative reasons behind Hermann’s desired capture are revealed.
Based on Patrick deWitt’s 2011 novel of the same name, The Sisters Brothers gets off to a slow, ponderous start. With little dramatic incident, the film’s pacing in the opening 45 minutes is disappointingly languid and feels a little too purposeless. This sluggish first act makes it hard to engage emotionally with each character initially and it’s not until the central four players join up that the narrative takes on an absorbing rhythm. Adroitly defying genre expectations, their convergence gives way to teamwork, cooperation and friendship instead of violent conflict. From here, The Sisters Brothers consistently steers away from formula in exciting, poignant and surprising ways. Benoît Debie’s gorgeous cinematography captures the barren plains, deep blue sky and bloody shootouts of the western landscape with a range of elegant long shots. Accompanying these images is Alexandre Desplat’s lyrical score which ranges from melancholic one minute to intensely brooding the next.
Reilly is the standout in an immensely talented cast, giving a wistful, multifaceted and funny performance as soulful older brother Eli. Elsewhere, Phoenix is perfectly cast as enigmatic, unpredictable alcoholic Charlie, Gyllenhaal brings educated tracker Morris to life with superb, quick-witted delivery and Ahmed brings bags of charm to prospector Hermann. There’s a tremendous chemistry between the four actors which elevates the film and gives the last act an electrifying momentum.
At times, The Sisters Brothers’ mix of thoughtful drama with brutal violence and slapstick humour can feel a little jarring, but the film ends on a high note with a resonant, low-key moment of familial reconciliation. While it feels a little lengthy at 121-minutes-long, The Sisters Brothers ultimately provides a touching depiction of unflinching brotherly loyalty, male loneliness and fraternity.