Manifest destiny makes no promises of prosperity. Those seeking riches in the wild, wild west were treated to the same pittance of dumb luck and social hierarchy that they were long familiar in the eastern shores. What distinguished the far reaches of the American West in the mid-1800s was the fierce cascade of violence that hung over the land like a raging conflagration and the profit one could seek by exacting that violence. Bounty hunters and criminals pocked the far-flung towns, trading human lives for riches. This is where we meet The Sisters Brothers.
Oregon. 1851. Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix) and Eli (John C. Reilly) Sisters are brothers. They are also infamous assassins and gifted gunslingers. The film begins pitched in darkness, a distant field and barn house suddenly illuminated by the pop of pistols. The scream of rifles in the night. Men cry out and die and we barely see any of it. Cinematographer Benoît Debie flexes contrarian muscles early, offering an alternative perspective of the vast west by keeping us out of the fray from the onset, allowing it a sense of distance in with its quiet desperation. And how perfect an opening for a film that at every opportunity subverts our expectations of the Western genre while remaining hyper-focused on telling its own story.
From Debie’s curious lighting of the scenes to Alexandre Desplat’s unusually jazzy score (another outlying curio for the Western genre), The Sisters Brothers rages to the beat of its own drum, constantly bucking free those genre purists in the audience who think they know what is to follow. Credit writer-director Jacques Audiard (A Prophet, Rust and Bone), who has made a name of himself through willfully singular storytelling, for consistently striking the right balance between flipping the script and crafting a compelling narrative – one never coming at the expense of the other.
The Sisters Brothers would in any other movie be the bumbling side characters, clunky frenemies who pose a foil to the noble heroes, who in this case would rightfully be Jake Gyllenhaal’s thoughtful outlaw-type John Morris and the doting chemist prospector Hermann Kermit Warm (an appropriately warm Riz Ahmed). Both characters are traditional heroes in their own way – dreaming of free self-sustaining societies and characterized by a none-too-obvious share of homoerotic subtext – but fall to the wayside as Audiard squares focus on Charlie, with his angry bouts of drunkenness and moral bankruptcy; and Eli, an elder brother struggling with feelings of inadequacy, pining for a simpler life of, say, owning a storefront on the prairie.
Audiard, joined by co-writer Thomas Bidegain to help adapt the book from Patrick DeWitt, charms the film with a sense of half-witted adventure, filling its pages with amusing and horrifying tableaus of accidental perils (a nightmare-inducing spider bite; an early funeral; first encounters of the toothbrush kind; a scarring bath.) Just from a scene-to-scene perspective, The Sisters Brothers holds an embarrassment of riches, from its litany of strong, quirky performances (all four leading men are aces) to its at times downright bizarre storytelling, this is a wholly unfamiliar Western; a treasure of peculiarity from a more-than-well-weathered genre.
Your mileage with the film may depend upon your willingness to embrace the outlandishness of Audiard’s structure. His vision is bold and offbeat; constantly galloping towards beats you don’t expect or resulting in arcs you don’t see coming. Three act structure is slashed. Comeuppance is never clean. Justice is few and far between. That helps justify then that, in a twist of irony, a Parisian director is able to better mine wealth from the classically American framework than an American director has been able to in many years.
CONCLUSION: ‘The Sisters Brothers’ subverts every waking expectation one has for the Western genre, currying favor with rich, strange performances and a bold penchant for charging down the dirtroad less traveled. Poetic, eccentric, and surprisingly heartrending at times, consider the latest from Jacques Audiard a flashbang must-see.