The Sisters Brothers is a movie teetering on the brink of change. Following the titular Sisters brothers – Eli (John C. Reilly) and Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix), a pair of gunfighters sent to kill Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed) after he allegedly stole from their powerful boss. Everything in The Sisters Brothers feels transient – from the characters to the setting to the moral stances we as the audience are encouraged to take.
Set across the American West in 1851, the very backdrop is a constantly-shifting exploration of the cities and towns that were beginning to take shape in the middle of the century. From Jacksonville to San Francisco, this almost-road-trip is studded with the technological and social advancements that would come to define the rest of the 1800s. And all of this is somehow best captured in an extended and slightly horrible sequence where John C. Reilly learns to clean his teeth for the first time.
I would say that’s my favourite thing about The Sisters Brothers, actually – the way it captures the hugeness of the endeavours at hand with such small details. For a movie that sprawls to cover four separate stories, such a huge range of backdrops, while taking on the vastness of a cinematically unexplored part of the American West, it spends very little time bedding us in, unravelling both the setting, the story, and the characters over the course of the movie in teased-out scenes of small interactions.
Of course, such an approach requires performers who can actually bring that sort of depth to their roles, and the four-pronged cast here does just that. Most of the film splits them into a pair of double acts – Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly as the titular brothers, with Jake Gyllenhaal (as the man originally sent to pursue Warm) and Riz Ahmed (whose previous work together in the criminally overlooked Nightcrawler assured great chemistry in this movie despite a vastly different backdrop) the men they are pursuing.
Imbued with a slightly Coen-brothers-y feel, all dry comedy and rich character observation, watching the way these four men come to know each other – and unravel themselves to the audience – relies on fantastic performances to tease out the details, and all four deliver in exceptional style, especially a restrained, exhausted Reilly. It rejects the basic cowboy and instead invests in the scientists and pretentious scribes and fractured fraternal bonds, the most striking moments not the perfunctory gunfights but the awkward attempts at emotional connection.
I love the way director Jacques Audiard (in his first English-language feature) never settles on a character for us to root for; Westerns usually settle on a hero (or anti-hero) for us to lean on as the story unfolds, but The Sisters Brothers constantly shifts who is in the right and who is in the wrong, who is loyal, who is honest, who can be trusted and who can’t. We’re firmly in the era of the neo-Western these days, and The Sisters Brothers loves that idea; unafraid of violence or moral ambiguity, but more interested in exploring the humanity of the characters we invest our time in, it stands as a beautifully transient example of what the genre can be – and the kind of characters these stories can follow.
By Louise MacGregor
(header image via Rolling Stone)