The Sisters Brothers

I love Westerns in all their forms, so when I saw that the Toronto International Film Festival was showing a Jacques Audiard (A Prophet) directed Western with Joaquin Phoenix, John C. Reilly, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Riz Ahmed, it was a must-see for me.  The Sisters Brothers, based on the novel by Patrick DeWitt, delivered on my already high expectations — it is a violent, funny, well-acted pulpy delight.  

You can see Jacques Audiard flexing his directorial muscles right from the opening scene and setting the tone of the movie with a bang.  The film opens on a shot of a house in the distance at night. We just hear characters talking, and then the scene is lit up by an exchange of gunfire.  As the camera closes in, we follow the two Sisters brothers, Eli (John C. Reilly) and Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix) as the kill everyone in the house. After they’re finished, they find that the barn is on fire, and a few spectacular fire-lit shots ensue.

Warm invented a technique for extracting gold, and the Sisters brothers are sent to extract this very information from his head.”

Meanwhile, in a second narrative, we follow John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Hermann Warm (Riz Ahmed) as they get to know one another.  Warm claims to have invented a technique for extracting gold, and the Sisters brothers have been sent to extract this very information from his head.  A series of alliances and double-crosses ensue, underscoring the dangers of the lawless west.

John C. Reilly is one of the most underappreciated national treasures we have — I can’t remember seeing him in a bad movie.  His Eli is the more responsible brother, protective of his younger sibling Charlie, who has a violent streak and a drinking problem.  They have such charisma and show such vulnerability at times, that it is easy to forget that they’re contract killers. Their scenes together are alternately funny, touching and horrifying as they get each other in and out of all manner of trouble.  Will Ferrell better watch out, he has competition in the John C. Reilly best-brother department.

Audiard is certainly channeling Quentin Tarantino here with the pulpy plot, stunning visuals, entertaining banter, and uncompromising violence.  To compare the two directly would be unfair to Audiard — he’s his own director, but it gives you a flavor of the kind of film we’re talking about.  In the end, The Sisters Brothers is a bit more light-hearted than typical Tarantino fare, which is strange to say given the high body count.

“…Reilly is one of the most underappreciated national treasures…”

The film looks beautiful, and no doubt that is due in large part to cinematographer Benoît Debie. He’s known for bold visuals, with previous projects like Enter the Void, and Spring Breakers. Galloping through mountain vistas on horseback is a great starting point for impressive visuals, but the fire-lit photography and close-up are particularly stunning.  

The one negative for The Sisters Brothers is that things work out a little too neatly in the end.  Characters never rarely to make the hard decisions we can see coming on the horizon. Sometimes this is played for laughs, so it isn’t strictly negative.  It is just that sometimes certain plot developments seem like a cop-out.

Overall The Sisters Brothers is just a bloody fun time in the west with four of the best actors working today, shot by a great director and cinematographer.  What’s not to like about that?

The Sisters Brothers (2018) Directed by Jacques Audiard. Written by Jacques Audiard, Thomas Bidegain. Starring John C. Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix, Jake Gyllenhaal, Riz Ahmed.

8 out of 10 stars

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