The Sisters Brothers Review: Audiard's Western is Surprisingly Endearing
Phoenix and Reilly are the driving force of the movie and their vehement chemistry accelerates it all the way through.
R: Violence including disturbing images, language, and some sexual content
Annapurna Pictures, Why Not Productions, Page 114 Productions,, Michael De Luca Productions
2 Hrs and 1 Minutes
Dir: Jacques Audiard | Writers: Jacques Audiard, Thomas Bidegain
Cast: John C. Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix, Jake Gyllenhaal, Riz Ahmed, Rutger Hauer
I had no idea what this movie was. Just like the trailer of “A Simple Favor”, I was unable to decipher what type of movie “The Sisters Brothers” was going to be. It looked somewhat silly but also badass. Come on, it's called “The Sisters Brothers” and stars John C. Reilly! But it’s based on a critically acclaimed and award-winning novel of the same name. So what do I expect?!
And what do I get? One of my favorite movies of this year.
Based on the novel by Patrick DeWitt which won the 2012 Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for humor writing, "The Sisters Brothers" takes place in Oregon in 1851, following brothers Eli and Charlie Sisters as they seek to kill a prospector who has stolen from their boss.
I’m going to be honest: I’m not a fan of Westerns. I’ve owned and seen many Westerns from the late 20th century and not many from our current era move me. I liked Tarantino's “Django Unchained” and “The Hateful Eight” but I don’t love ‘em. Shoot, my favorite Western movies are “Rango”, “City Slickers”, and “Blazing Saddles” which says a lot about my perception of Westerns. If you’re searching for a Western comedy, then go see “Damsel” because what you have here is a straightforward Western movie that is dark, gritty, and layered.
It takes all the conventional tropes of a buddy road trip and cleverly applies it to the old Wild West. Phoenix and Reilly are the driving force of the movie and their vehement chemistry accelerates it all the way through.
The movie may be called “The Sisters Brothers” but it is centered on Reilly as Eli Sisters; the adventure, which includes his brother Charlie, is mainly portrayed through his point-of-view. Reilly and Phoenix’s characters differ from the expected personalities you would think might be attributed to them. Instead of being the silly wild card, Reilly is the older, responsible, more stable brother of the duo and Phoenix is the drunk, unstable, hard-headed one... and it works. They’ve portrayed characters with those personality traits before in other films. Many have associated John C. Reilly to comedy, for he has starred in plenty in his career, but you have to remember he’s great as a dramatic actor as well. The man starred in three of five Best Picture nominated movies in 2003. Reilly has a wide range so me saying, “John C. Reilly delivers an incredible dramatic performance” is not surprising, but goddamn it he delivers the most endearing and powerful one this year. As far as Phoenix goes, the most recent movie he starred in was, “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot” where he portrayed an alcoholic cartoonist going through a 10-step road to recovery. So, having him paired with Reilly is more of an authentic casting than a forced mismatch.
They are assassins who are the best at what they do and there are shoot-‘em-up sequences that prove this, but their main charm is their love for each other. They will kill to an extent where they will deliberately destroy an entire society if you either cross them, wrong them, or halt them in their mission, but they are endearing to each other. Eli makes sure Charlie is in check, and if Charlie is being stubborn and sees Eli is in trouble, he stops what he’s doing. Even if they argue or get into a quarrel with each other, they still end up patching things up like brothers do. They capture the true bond that comes from:
They may be assassins by occupation but brothers at heart and you buy into these characters and all their vulnerable flaws.
There are a plentiful amount of humorous moments, but the film never steers in the way of being classified as a full-blown comedy. When it does get funny, the jokes are organic and they don’t crack the corny jokes you would expect out their surname. Some of the best moments of humor come from these characters encountering new inventions that we use in our daily lives and seeing how amazed they are by them. If this was in the hands of any other filmmaker, they would easily shift this into an exuberant comedy. Because this is French director Jacques Audiard’s (“A Prophet”, “Rust & Bone”) first American feature, he adds his own genuine style and keeps the story grounded. Yeah, it gets funny occasionally but this is more of a story-driven movie than a comedic one.
This movie might as well be the more sophisticated version of “A Million Ways to Die in the West” because when people are killed or get ill, it happens in the most disturbing ways imaginable in the 1800s. If there was anything memorable about the terrible Seth MacFarlane flick it was that rant where he expresses “anything that is not you, wants to kill you”, and that is what occurs in this movie. There are a lot of intense and disturbing ways people die that are not by gunshot, and instead of deaths being played for laughs, they’re actually tragic.
It starts off light and entertaining, but the way it progresses is unexpected while still being well-transitioned. It’s similar to watching “Bojack Horseman”. At first you think it’s a funny and lighthearted satirical comedy, but as the seasons go on, the show becomes gloomy and dark, if not surreally accurate. Now, imagine that progression condensed into two hours with an ever-so-excellent execution.
Another one of the primary components as to why this Western slaps (as the kids say these days) is the cinematography. The cinematography is outstanding where it embraces the atmosphere of a Western by being dark and gritty. The lighting has a nice black and beige color pallette. Then, there are clever shots that pay tribute to classic-styled filmmaking that were present in 20th century Westerns. It does not do it often, but when they are integrated, they are nicely placed. There is a well-choreographed tracking shot that ties the story up and it’s beautiful to witness; it’s similar to closing out a storybook.
For a two-hour Western, at times the film feels like two significantly different movies when it shifts focus from the Sisters brothers to John Morris (Gyllenhaal) and Hermann Kermit Warm (Ahmed). Storytelling elements become significantly different in the process. Whenever the movie centers on them, Morris often narrates the events he experiences with Warm and is mostly pretty dull, mostly due to the fact that they’re:
Not to sound like a brawny dimwit, but they are very intelligent characters who are focused on becoming rich and forming a society because of their inventions to obtain Gold. The story does take place during the Gold Rush Era and they are incredibly smart about finding an accessible way to find Gold. Even when the Sisters stumble across Morris’s notes as they get on their trail, they heckle at it and call him out for his pretentious bullshit. The two are very underwritten until the Sisters brothers do eventually catch up to them. When the two pairs get together, they develop more as characters and the story becomes more heartwarming and charming.
The film gradually builds itself up to conclude in an intensely violent climax that would involve redemption and betrayal, for it is heavily foreshadowed, but when it gets to it, it all feels very anticlimactic. It feels as if the filmmakers said, “Nah, we need to wrap this story up. We don’t have enough of a budget to end with a big bang.” I don’t have a problem with how it concludes, but it is somewhat unsatisfying how it plays out.
Is this a “Nightcrawler” prequel? I’m pretty sure this is a prequel to “Nightcrawler”. If not, I’ll be that guy who creates the theory that Gyllenhaal and Ahmed’s characters are ancestors to their characters in “Nightcrawler.” Okay, of course I’m joking, but it’s funny to me that Ahmed and Gyllenhaal are once again paired up to portray two people who go in business together and become partners. Seriously, the first line Ahmed says to Gyllenhaal when their characters first interact is “Do we know each other?” And all I could think of was this:
Also, if you have never seen “Nightcrawler”, go see it.
Invigorated by the chemistry between Reilly and Phoenix and pioneered by the grounded direction of Jacques Audiard, “The Sisters Brothers” is a refreshingly entertaining Western that may have a traditional story, but is told oh so well.