When it comes to Westerns, the expectation is a picturesque, action-packed drama that looks into the dangerous atmosphere of the era and the perils that its inhabitants faced. Most of the time these films are remembered for their intense stand offs and gory fight scenes, but it seems for Jacques Audiard’s English-language debut he had something less conventional in mind with The Sisters Brothers.
Synopsis: In the Old West, an Oregon criminal known as the Commodore sends gunslinging brothers Eli and Charlie Sisters to find and kill chemist Hermann Warm and retrieve his money making formula. Complications soon arise when John Morris, a detective who is supposed to help the siblings, joins forces with Hermann for a business venture. (Annapurna Pictures)
Starring: John C. Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix, and Jake Gyllenhaal
Writers: Jacques Audiard and Thomas Bidegain
Director: Jacques Audiard
Rating: R (United States)
Running Time: 121mins
The film follows the story of the Sisters Brothers, a pair of notorious assassins, who help keep their Commodore (Rutger Hauer) maintain control of his land: Eli Sisters (Reilly) is the older sibling who wants to get out of the business and start a new life, but his brother Charlie (Phoenix) has hopes of moving up in the organization and continuing his lifestyle of booze, women and shootouts. Their next target is Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed), a gold prospector and chemist, who is being followed by the Commodore’s scout John Morris (Gyllenhaal). When Morris makes contact with Warm he learns of a water-based formula, which could change the way that gold is prospected, prompting him to start a corporation with him and help Warm escape the Sisters Brothers.
What makes this film unconventional is that at first, it seems to be focused on sibling hitmen but then it decides to take a different route and become a character study of scarred characters in a dangerous world. The first act is filled with some long, empty set up and some uneven pacing that makes it difficult to invest in the story. Most of the characters’ decisions at this point seem unjustified as their interactions have not been developed enough in their short amount of screen time. Unfortunately, the third act of this film is equally as disappointing as it leaves a bittersweet feeling of whether or not the ending is a little too neatly tied together.
Thankfully, the story picks up when it centres around the performances of its phenomenal cast. Phoenix, Ahmed and Gyllenhaal all bring some entertaining and fleshed out characters to this story with some odd dynamics, but this is Reilly’s movie. His character arc of a notorious assassin who yearns to leave and start a new life along with his family’s tragic backstory are captured perfectly by Reilly’s innate ability to be both the levelheaded and most bewildered brother of the pair. It is through him that this film shines and he deserves some recognition for this career performance.
Beyond the story and characters, this film has some unbelievable cinematography that rivals any other in the genre as its sweeping shots of the Old Western landscape make for some serious eye candy. Pair that with its mood-setting, tension-building score and these aspects help to elevate a script that pushes away from the immersive gunfights of the era and replace them with a character study of people trying to overcome a tragic past.
The Sisters Brothers is an unconventional western that attempts to reinvent the genre by taking its stereotypical macho persona and humanizing it. While the film lacks the expected level of action and finds itself lost in some long, empty setup, the core story has some touching moments that are helped by some stellar performances and sublime cinematography making for a fun, yet thought-provoking, character study set in the Old West. This film is too light to be a Coen Brothers or Tarantino style dark comedy, but it is too heavy to be in the same vein of Blazing Saddles. It creates its own style between the two in a modernized Western dramedy.
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