Back in the treacherous times of the Old West, it was every man for himself. You lived and died more by your gun than your word, so it helped to have an older brother to keep you safe. For Charlie Sisters (Joaquin Phoenix), having an older brother like Eli (John C. Reilly) allowed him to be a degenerate drunk with a tendency for violence.
Jacques Audiard’s Sisters Brothers may look like a Western that you’ve seen before, but the understated pacing and performances from an elite cast turn it into something more. While it’s not as funny as the trailer made it out to be, this movie has a rhythm and wise confidence that most movies in its genre lack.
The Sisters Brothers are assassins riding hard in the year 1851, and they go from job to job. On the surface, everything is fine, but if you look closer, the seams of the bond between the two are starting to bust. Charlie gets them into far too much trouble, and wants to ride forever, going from job to job. Eli wants to settle down, put away his guns, and download the quiet life for the rest of his days. Most brothers would leave a loose cannon like Charlie to his lonesome at middle age, but Eli simply can’t abandon his brother.
That doesn’t stop Eli from giving Charlie a hard time for being an organic hard time creating machine. Charlie and Eli don’t finish their sentences; they basically rewrite them.
The Gold Rush during those times turned many honest men and women into cold-blooded killers, and the Sisters Brothers were already there, so the merciless killing came easy to them. When a chemist (Riz Ahmed) cracks a formula involving a chemical that allows the gold beneath the water in a lake to light up and become easy to collect, he settles into the scope of the Sisters Brothers. For Charlie, it’s a chance to rise in the world. For Eli, it may be his ticket home.
A local scout (Jake Gyllenhaal) gets involved, complicating matters, and setting the four up for a collision course that doesn’t exactly play out as one would expect.
Here’s the thing: the entire movie doesn’t play out as you would expect. Due to the malicious nature of the genre, I spent the better portion of the film looking for who would die and who would make it out alive. Audiard does a great job of taking your expectations and turning them on their head, making the movie a unique experience rather than another shoot ‘em up Western flick.
The unconventional nature of the film coupled with the well-known interworking’s of the genre-serves the audience a different kind of delight. There are laughs-especially a sequence involving a spider and another having to do with a slap-take some of the tension away, but in the end, the dramatic angle of the brothers’ story sneaks up on you and leaves a dent.
The cast is superb and raises the material up a notch. Phoenix and Reilly are instantly convincing as opposite brothers fighting separate urges. Both actors are excellent performers, and slip into the skin of their characters without having to debate with the viewers on the merits of their talent. Gyllenhaal, in a smaller role, creates a wholly original type with Morris, an ambitious if unprepared scout who gets in over his head. Ahmed, who is everywhere these days, turns in a fine performance as the crutch that drives the center of the plot.
Reilly is the easy standout here, playing a mild-mannered man who was unfortunately blessed with the ability to kill with ease. Here is a talented character actor who has never been given the ability to lead a film, and while he shares top billing with Phoenix, this is a film that triggers due to Eli’s angle of the story, and Reilly runs with the opportunity.
Phoenix, a natural chameleon of film, doesn’t need 15 minutes to convince you how dangerous and charismatic Charlie Sisters can be, and that’s a gift. The actor can truly play anyone and any speed, and he blends nicely with Reilly’s speed of working.
The action sequences are startling in a good way, with Audiard taking a page from Michael Mann’s book and making every gunshot ring through the audience and theater. If you are going to make a Western, making it sound good is primitive towards succeeding. The action scenes are very well done and will shock you.
For me, the bond between the brothers carried the film to another place for me. Two men connected through blood and experience laying down their lives for each other. Charlie may be reckless with his words, but he’s a maverick with a gun, and that gets the two into-and out of-a lot of trouble.
I love the way the film ended, which is a sublime and anti-climatic note. You won’t see it coming. It carried an Eastwood-type restraint, and that was a wise choice.
The pacing of the film isn’t the greatest and there was a point midway where I told my dad that the film needed to pick up or do something, and thankfully it did. The final 35 minutes of the film turned a decent experience into something more.
Audiard’s Rust and Bone was a different take on a love story, and earned its stripes with stellar acting and subversive storytelling. The Sisters Brothers is more of the same, taking what you expect and turning that on its head while still being entertaining and witty.
The acting, action, and finale are solid. Go see this film. Take your brother.