The Sisters Brothers review: an off-kilter gem of a western

Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly lead a stellar cast in this lively, off-beat western

When details of Jacque Audiard’s film of The Sisters Brothers were announced many felt a mix of surprise and intrigue. Canadian writer Patrick DeWitt’s 2011 source novel is a darkly hilarious tale of greed, murder and sibling rivalry set during the California gold rush. It reads fast, violent and funny – seemingly written with half an eye on a potential Coen Brothers adaptation in mind.

Audiard, meanwhile, is best-known for 2015 Palme D’Or-winner Dheepan and tense prison drama A Prophet. For his first English-language feature, what would the French auteur make of a western?

The eponymous siblings are Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix) and Eli (John C. Reilly), two assassins who work out of Oregon City in 1851. Drunken, vicious Charlie and older, more considered Eli are tasked with tracking down and killing Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed) by their ruthless boss, the Commodore (Rutger Hauer).

Meanwhile, the Commodore has also put private detective John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal) on Warm’s tail. The preening, erudite Morris reaches Warm first and decides to team up with him to prospect for gold using Warm’s special chemical solution rather than handing him over to the brothers to face certain death.

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DeWitt’s book is necessarily chopped and changed for the screen with several characters and events removed or played down as per the requirements of Audiard and co-scriptwriter Thomas Bidegain, a regular Audiard collaborator. What remains is an off-kilter gem that’s more mouth than trousers.

A shaggy-dog story with a lean plot that has a vague point to make about the foundations of American avarice, The Sisters Brothers is here for the chat beyond any fundamental messages about society. Its action sequences are snappily mounted and the overall piece is shot stylishly by frequent Gaspar Noé cinematographer Benoît Debie, but the focus and plaudits belong to our four core actors and what they have to say.

Phoenix, who has long since cemented his position as the most interesting Hollywood actor of his generation, is a menace as Charlie. In a film about a pair of prolific killers that doesn’t shirk from displaying scenes of bloodshed, his death stares and caustic line deliveries provide the most savagely disconcerting violence of all. Reilly, known to all as a master of character acting in art-house titles and commercial fluff alike, essays a forlorn man eager for retirement and some hard-earned peace with a degree of melancholy and grace he brings to many of his finest roles (Stan & Ollie being just the most recent).

Gyllenhaal is often at his best playing a self-satisfied or pretentious man undone by his own intelligence (Life, Zodiac, Velvet Buzzsaw et al) and here he’s on top form as erudite journal-keeper Morris. Ahmed, in the least flashy and smallest of the four roles, is a typically sympathetic but ill-fated presence. We want him to survive, a good man in spite of his flaws. But in his vulnerable face we can see he’s doomed, much like in his heartbreaking role in Four Lions.

Every few years in living memory there’s been a brief spike and lull in the popularity of the western, accompanied by predictable articles contemplating the genre’s mortality. Following straight after The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs and sizzlers such as Warwick Thornton’s Sweet Country, The Sisters Brothers proves there’s life in the old horse opera yet.

The Sisters Brothers is in UK cinemas from 5 April

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