The term “revisionist” gets thrown around a lot in film criticism, especially when it comes to genres like the Western, but in the case of The Sisters Brothers, the description certainly applies. Directed and co-written (with Thomas Bidegain) by the French filmmaker Jacques Audiard–best known for searing world cinema films like A Prophet and Dheepan—The Sisters Brothers takes the traditional Western template and then veers unexpectedly, humorously and humanely away from it, creating both a funny buddy comedy and a brutal character-driven drama within the same occasionally shaggy framework.
Based on a novel by Patrick DeWitt, there’s little pioneering spirit or old-time black-and-white morality apparent in The Sisters Brothers. Audiard’s Old West is a crude, filthy, mean and often barbaric place, a vast wilderness marked by scattered pockets of, if not civilization, at least the semblance of a society or community. It’s on a symbolic representation of this wasteland–an empty plain on which sits one lonely, tiny ranch–that we meet Eli and Charlie Sisters (John C. Reilly and future Joker Joaquin Phoenix), siblings who are also deadly hired assassins.
We first encounter them at the end of a job, which Audiard films from a distance: we never see the violence up close, but we see the bursts of gunfire that flash out from the ranch and the Sisters’ weapons like distant strokes of lightning against the dark sky. There are screams and finally a fire (including the haunting image of a running horse, flames rippling out from its body). The one immediate notion we come away with is that the Sisters are damn good at their job, although Audiard never glorifies the brothers’ considerable skills and shows the violence in all its ugliness.
What the director seems most interested in is getting into the psyches of these two men, who are vastly different in many ways but united by blood both inside and out. Eli is the more thoughtful of the two, a man who we soon realize has had enough of the Sisters’ nomadic, amoral lifestyle and wants to find a new direction in life. Charlie is not quite there yet: dissolute, often drunk, he revels in whoring, fighting and killing as if he knows that it will all eventually catch up with him one way or another.
The bones of a narrative are put in place when the Sisters are hired by their regular employer, the Commodore (a briefly seen Rutger Hauer), to find and kill Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed, soon to be seen in Venom), an idealistic inventor who has discovered a new chemical formula through which prospectors can detect gold. A detective named John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), sent by the Commodore previously to retrieve Warm, has been seduced by the man’s confidence, passion and dreams of building a Utopian society down in Texas with the riches they’ll presumably acquire from Warm’s formula. Now the Sisters are tasked with dispatching both men and bringing the formula back.
But The Sisters Brothers is not as concerned with Warm’s MacGuffin-like discovery as it is with subverting the structure that it sets up. Nominally built as a chase (and shot in epic fashion by cinematographer Benoit Debie in the film’s one deliberate nod to a genre hallmark), the movie takes a long, leisurely, meandering course on its way to the resolution of the story, focusing instead on the evolving characters of its four leads.
Reilly is impeccable and soulful as Eli, pulled by his sense of responsibility to both his brother and his job but knowing that he wants to experience a different life and perhaps even love. Phoenix is also excellent as Charlie, tamping down the heavy existential dread of some of his recent roles while subtly portraying the younger brother’s gradual transition toward Eli’s way of thinking. The series of tangents and mini-adventures the two encounter on their journey–from a bizarre accident with a spider to a confrontation with the creepy bordello owner Mayfield (Rebecca Root)–highlight the near-unbreakable bond between the two even as their goals become increasingly divergent.
Ahmed, with his large eyes and disarmingly candid way of speaking, provides a core of grace and gives a warmly open performance. Gyllenhaal’s character is perhaps the murkiest in terms of his development and saddled with a strange accent that veers toward British and then hairpins back toward a sort of upper class affectation, neither of which is quite successful. The movie spends a bit too much time with this pair–balancing their principled quest against the more prosaic and ruthless one of the Sisters–but their storyline finally finds its footing when Morris and Warm inevitably meet up with the Sisters.
That meeting doesn’t go quite as one might expect, and neither does just about all of the last third of The Sisters Brothers. The kind of plot developments one might expect from a standard Western never quite materialize, and in some cases are actively turned on their heads. But ultimately, all four men are changed forever by the strange manner in which they are brought together, and the film reveals that what Audiard is most interested in–as with much of his earlier work–is the ways in which damaged, hardened or cynical men can at least be introduced the possibility of change. The epilogue provides a final, eloquent coda to this most unusual and fascinating of Westerns.
The Sisters Brothers is out in theaters today.
Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye