Captures the grit and brutality of Sam Peckinpah alongside the tragicomic cynicism of John Houston, with the wide-eyed majesty of John Ford.
For his first English-language feature film, French director Jacques Audiard turned to a quintessential American genre: the western. Based on the novel by Patrick deWitt, The Sisters Brothers is being billed as a dark comedy, but the film itself is far more varied in mood and tone than the marketing would suggest.
Perhaps it’s just in the casting of John C. Reilly or the pitch-perfect comedic timing Joaquin Phoenix displays in the film’s trailer, but The Sisters Brothers seemed like it was going to be a quirky send-up of the American western, with an outsider’s perspective faintly skewering the conventions of the genre. But instead, Audiard has helmed a truly stirring entry into the grand tradition of films set on the frontier. He captures the grit and brutality of Sam Peckinpah alongside the tragicomic cynicism of John Houston, with the wide-eyed majesty of John Ford.
Phoenix and Reilly star as Eli and Charlie Sisters, two Gold Rush-era bounty hunters under the employ of The Commodore, an unscrupulous criminal who uses the brothers like blunt force objects of destruction. Neither man is particularly smart, but they’re effective. Where Charlie is a braggart who harbors no delusions about his status as a killer, his older brother Eli is less comfortable with the life they lead and one day hopes to escape it.
The two men are sent after Hermann Warm (Riz Ahmed), a chemist who has divined a valuable new method of mining for gold. John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), a detective in the Commodore’s employ, befriends Hermann to hand him off to the brothers, but is enticed by the seemingly utopian alternative Hermann begins to tell him he plans to build. Much of the film then splits its time between these dueling brotherhoods: one bound by blood and obligation, the other by hope and generosity.
The resulting story goes in some fascinating directions, providing as many opportunities in the plot to highlight the differences in each man’s disposition, morality and place in the landscape. Charlie is something of a relic, a specifically Western archetype that wouldn’t fit into the new brand of society Hermann seems convinced is still possible to create in a land as bound by violence and graft as America. Both Eli and John are more aware of their anachronistic leanings and seek to distance themselves from the men they once were, convinced, perhaps deluded, that they can still change into something new.
Audiard situates a truly surprising chapter in the film’s somewhat doughy middle, one that provides an uneasy stalemate masquerading as an idyllic simulacrum of Hermann’s dreams. A lesser film might not be willing to take the time to establish the disparity between the persistently perilous life the brothers have led for years and the brief tease at a better one they could one day enjoy. But this extended sequence lulls the viewer into a sense of comfort completely at odds with the rustic trappings of the time period.
This is a film that provides a chaotic interpretation of frontier life, where gunshots are imprecise and deafening, and no sleeping place is safe from pestilence. Audiard spends much of the film establishing and purposely reaffirming the grim details of a bloody society based on the impartial malice of commerce, so that the merest glimpse of even an unsustainable alternative feels like something resembling paradise. It makes the tragedy of the film’s final act all the more harrowing, despite the strange humor on display throughout.
All four leads deliver spectacular performances and cinematographer Benoit Debie photographs breathtaking vistas for them to play against, but it’s the metaphysical collision between dueling ideologies in a time period of transition that makes the film so compelling. It’s how Audiard is able to shift from seemingly irreconcilable tones from scene to scene, because the underpinning spiritual conflict functions just as well within moments of action, of suspense, of laughter and dread. That the film ends as it does is as surprising and inevitable as the rest of the film’s fateful momentum. If this is Audiard’s first major foray into stateside filmmaking, one can only hope it won’t be his last.