The western genre often gets a fresh perspective when a foreign filmmaker sets their eyes upon the desert landscape. This is true with French director Jacques Audiard's first English-language film The Sisters Brothers. The film is often pushing against the idea of what a western is and can be making it an anti-western at times. It is also frequently riveting.
This is in large part to the central performances by Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly as brothers Charlie and Eli. The two have a palpable chemistry, painting two men connected by blood who are starting to part ways with how they view their life's work. They are guns for hire who often hunt down and kill men. The opening scene features them coming out of the darkness to shoot up a family and inadvertently setting a barn full of horses on fire. Charlie loves to drink and kill. Eli has more of a conscience and is troubled by all the killing.
Set in the Gold Rush, the main plot concerns the brothers hunting down Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed). Warm is a chemist who has developed a way to illuminate gold in river beds. The brothers are to meet a British man named Morris (Jake Gyllenhaul) and pick up Warm to torture and kill him for their boss The Commodore (Rutger Hauer). Morris, however, becomes taken by Warm's promise of a new society built upon the wealth they may gain from his gold finding technique.
While this plot is engaging, the movie is best when it focuses on the brothers's dynamic. For Charlie, the killing they do is enough to satisfy. He envisions them creating a mythic lore about themselves as they kill from town to town. The more humane Eli questions the purpose of their lives and wants to walk away from the killing. The snappy script by Audiard and Thomas Bidegan reveals details about the brothers's past slowly but with fascinating results.
Audiard has never made a full-out action film but many of his films have excelled at brutal intensity. He has captured prison brawls in A Prophet and street fights in Rust and Bone but The Sisters Brothers shows his talent for shoot outs. These gunfights are unpredictable and therefore very suspenseful. It is never clear that anyone is safe in these scenes. Combine that tension with some great sound design and cinematography and you get several strong sequences of gun play.
While the entire cast is strong, Reilly is the film's standout performance. He has always excelled at playing earnest goofballs but here he finds something balanced between outlaw and tender lover. The scene he has involving a prostitute is a perfect showcase for this balance as he tries to sexually role-play in the most heartfelt way. Phoenix continues to play troubled characters with a great sense of empathy. Charlie could easily be a cliche of character ticks but in Phoenix's hand, he is a fully formed character.
The Sisters Brothers is an accessible yet quirky anti-western. It's core themes explore the masculinity that is so integral to the genre. The film never feels predictable or miscalculated. While the story falters a bit and the pacing gets a tad long, the film is a must see.