When I think about westerns, I think about iconography: lone gunman, vistas, a lot of strong silent types. What I don’t think of are men dreaming of opening stores, Utopian ideals, and fraternal bonds of love, but that’s exactly what you get in Jacques Audiard’s The Sisters Brothers (adapted from the wonderful novel of the same name by Patrick deWitt) and why it works. There is plenty of gun-slinging and bloodletting as well, as its titular brothers (Sisters is their surname) are hired guns with a natural aptitude for killing, but Audiard’s camera favors the interstitial moments of basking by sun-flecked river, or tender close ups, to the dark chaos of the film’s violent confrontations that are often lit only by muzzle flashes and hectically edited. This is an idiosyncratic film, and the touch of its French director embellishing this quintessential American genre is readily apparent, with experimental flourishes like direct address, dream sequences, and unconventional camera work adding flavor to the otherwise workman-like compositions. But in a genre that has long since seen its golden years, The Sisters Brothers is solid evidence that there are unique stories left to tell in it.
Brothers Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix) and Eli (John C. Reilly) feel perfectly cast; Phoenix as the younger, insincere, vice-ridden, and more violent of the two (though with just the right amount of hidden naivety), and Reilly as the gentle and subservient older brother (who is just as skilled at killing, though he does not relish it). The infamous Sisters brothers have been tasked to hunt down a chemist named Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed, bringing incredible pathos to his peculiar and transfixing role) who has both a formula that their capitalist gangster boss believes is his, and the newly won allegiance of their tracker, John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal). The drama of the film doesn’t come from the thrill of the chase but from the contradictory desires of the brothers. Charlie is committed to the life of violence he seems so suited for, but Eli longs for a simpler, and safer, pursuit. Eli is fully articulate in expressing his desires and thoughts, and Charlie is incredibly inarticulate (willfully so), and there’s a wonderful cascade of venting frustrations that have been building since long before the events the film opens with.
Phoenix and Reilly have perfect chemistry between one another, so much so that my chief complaint is that the film could have slowed the pace down even further and allowed their alternately bickering and playful relationship, and the colorful vignettes that bring them to the fore, more room to breathe. Sometimes moments ripe for comedy are left hanging in favor of a melancholic fade to black, and the violent road bumps the pair hit along their quest never feel like they are mined for as much tension as they should. What the film does give us in the stops along the journey that make up the first two-thirds of the movie are great, but it’s just a touch too reserved to really let us have the kind of swaggering fun that Alexandre Desplat’s remarkable score (by far the film’s greatest aesthetic asset) implies.
The humor of the film largely dissipates as the brothers close in on their inevitable goal, but what’s surprising is that the film handles this gradual tonal shift with great grace, building to a genuinely affecting climax. The episodic stops along the journey were not just there to provide flavor and let us enjoy the repartee between Charlie and Eli but to layer a history of poisoned bloodlines and a struggle for innocence and equality in a world that seems to demand violence and hierarchy. The movie has quite a bit more on its mind than its buddy romp marketing would have you believe, and that “more” is precisely why this final third works as it does, providing a warmth and tenderness that has been missing in the age of the stark and savage neo-western revival. Anyone looking for some climactic bloodshed will leave disappointed, but those who open themselves up to this charming film will find their time rewarded in a surprising way.