The Sisters Brothers

(Audiard, 2018)


Bolstered by dedicated performances from its lead actors, Jacques Audiard’s uneven western feels more like family melodrama than a swashbuckling action tale. The relationship between Eli and Charlie Sisters is perfect as the film’s emotional core, but their cross-country journey as hired gunmen serves more as a backdrop than an actual plot. The film is not a western in the traditional sense of the word— with epic shootouts and righteous cowboys. Rather, it’s a nuanced character study about two brothers who depend on each other to get through life.

John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix star as the titular Sisters Brothers, two men who have made a living by killing in the 1850s. However, their life is far from glamorous. Eli Sisters (Reilly) is lonely and disenchanted by their murderous career choice. Charlie (Phoenix), on the other hand, enjoys being a contract killer, but lacks the discipline needed to be more successful. Both men are talented at what they do, but Charlie’s alcoholism and frequent antics only hinder their efficiency. At the beginning of the film, the Sisters Brothers are hired to track down and kill a chemist named Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed), who has created a formula for finding gold. Luckily for the brothers, their associate, John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), has already tracked Warm’s location. All they have to do is meet up with Morris and put a bullet and Warm. Easier said than done it seems, as the brothers face a series of unfortunate obstacles on their way to the rendezvous point.

The set-up for The Sisters Brothers is intriguing to say the least, and its core cast of actors bring a lot to the story, but the fact is that storyline doesn’t last very long. At a certain point (maybe halfway through the two hour film) Audiard discards of that plotline altogether, in favor of a slower paced character drama. Audiard even drops hints early on that The Sisters Brothers won’t be your typical western. The film may begin with a shootout, but we spend more time watching drunk shenanigans, poetic monologues, and the hilarious effects of a spider bite in the throat than we do actual gunslinging. It’s a really solid film on the whole, but if you’re going into this film with any expectations based on the genre, trailer, or even posters, you may find yourself a bit confused, and maybe even disappointed. But the more nuanced elements of the script are actually the best parts. For most of the film, we are forced to follow two groups of two men as their relationships evolve. Of course Eli and Charlie’s relationship is the “focus” of the film, with Reilly and Phoenix consistently bouncing off each other in hilarious and unexpected ways. But Hermann Warm’s rocky friendship with John Morris is equally as nuanced, if not more so. The Sisters Brothers puts Ahmed and Gyllenhaal side-by-side for the first time since 2014’s Nightcrawler, and it is immediately clear that Ahmed has grown a lot as an actor since then. It takes a lot to say that Jake Gyllenhaal has the least interesting performance in this film. He wasn’t bad by any means, but he seemed to get a bit lost alongside the more striking performances from Reilly, Phoenix, and Ahmed.

Unfortunately, the film’s weak box office and low word-of-mouth will be strong factors when it comes time for awards season. Reilly and Phoenix’s performances deserve to at least be in the conversation, as does Alexandre Desplat’s score, which puts a dissonant twist on the classic western movie score. The Sisters Brothers is definitely not for everyone, but if you’re interested in off-beat, poetic genre films, then this one may be for you. ★★★½

David Merkle