Review: The Sisters Brothers (2018)


At first glance, it might seem odd that French provocateur Jacques Audiard (A Prophet, Dheepan) is the filmmaker behind The Sisters Brothers, the darkly comic western adapted from the bestselling Canadian novel by Patrick deWitt. Surely, the novel’s arch tone, blood-curdling violence, and acerbic wit would be more up the alley of Joel and Ethan Coen, or other American filmmakers with a predisposition for black comedy and existential nihilism. But The Sisters Brothers isn’t a straight comedy, nor does it share the dark philosophy of Cormac McCarthy. It’s funny, but profoundly sad and more likely to sit with silence than fill the space with caustic humour. Audiard, who has demonstrated in recent films that he is both a genre stylist (if not a purist) and an emotional romantic, proves himself the right man for the job. The Sisters Brothers is amusing, but also sad, quiet, and strangely affirming for a film so occupied with death and despair.

The eponymous brothers are Eli (John C. Reilly) and Charlie Sisters (Joaquin Phoenix), hired guns working for the mysterious Commodore (Rutger Hauer) in Oregon City in 1851. The Commodore tasks them with tracking down Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed), a chemist who has developed a formula for illuminating gold in riverbeds. The Commodore has also hired detective John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal) to help the brothers find Warm, but once Morris meets Warm, he befriends him and abandons his job, instead realizing the potential of Warm’s prospecting formula. The Sisters Brothers set out to find Morris and Warm and get the formula, but their journey isn’t as straightforward as they initially assume it’ll be.

Like Patrick deWitt’s novel, Audiard’s film is a picaresque work, using an episodic structure to highlight the rough-and-tumble adventures of Eli, who’s a professional assassin but a sympathetic and gentle person at heart. In an early scene, he buys a toothbrush and Audiard makes a point of showing Eli carefully scrubbing his teeth each evening, using the toothbrush like a child holding a tool for the first time. In another scene, Eli hires a prostitute (Allison Tolman) and tasks her with recreating a scene from his past when a kind woman gifted him a shawl. Eli exhorts her to say the words with gentleness and love when she gives the shawl to him, but the prostitute flees after growing too uncomfortable with Eli’s tenderness. It’s not what she’s used to.

The Sisters Brothers focuses on these small moments of tenderness in addition to the bloodshed that drives the story. Of course, Eli is a killer by trade, so he’s not unaccustomed to callous displays of violence, but the brutality of his job sits uneasily alongside his natural kindness. John C. Reilly, an actor who has often used his size and weathered look to either comic or melancholic effect, taps into the innate decency he projects as an actor and gives one of his best performances. Joaquin Phoenix, as his sadistic brother Charlie, is less surprising here, but he’s dependably scary even as he projects an immense sadness in the moments between his empty, violent actions.

If the character moments are so tender and the performances so good, why do I seem to be damning The Sisters Brothers with faint praise? Perhaps it’s that the tone and visual style are off-putting at first, and that the picaresque structure stops you from being engrossed beginning-to-end. The dialogue, largely borrowed word-for-word from the novel, is strangely pitched between old-timey, poetic language and anachronistic jokiness more befitting a Reilly and Will Ferrell comedy, or, even, a Coen Bros. film. The visual style is soft and distant. The opening gunfight shot at the bottom edge of the frame in extreme wide shot sets the tone for Audiard’s visual approach, which shows plenty of violence, but doesn’t revel in it in ways typical for a Western. There is a lot of bloodshed, but not once is the violence exciting.

Is this why I’m so muted in my appreciation of The Sisters Brothers? Do I want more generic satisfaction from my Westerns? It’s very possible. Like the novel, Audiard’s film is a sturdy work of drama, but it’s a little off-putting and hard to get a handle on. It’s pitched between a revisionist Western and a classical Western, neither committing to the new vantage points of the one style, nor the satisfying convention of the other. It’s a good film and has many elements to admire, but it’s hard to get too passionate about such a work. At least I’m sure of one thing: it’s a better film for Audiard making it than it would be if the Coens had got their hands on it, even if the direct borrowing of language from the novel is more suiting their often-arch style. They’re great storytellers, but they’re too callous for a character like Eli Sisters. Audiard gets the tone right, even if the tone makes for appropriately uneasy viewing at times.

7 out of 10

The Sisters Brothers (2018, USA/France)

Directed by Jacques Audiard; written by Jacques Audiard and Thomas Bidegain, based on the novel by Patrick deWitt; starring John C. Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix, Jake Gyllenhaal, Riz Ahmed, Rutger Hauer, Carol Kane, Rebecca Root, Allison Tolman.