John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix star in this audaciously quirky and surprisingly compelling sagebrush saga.
Editor's Note: Throughout March and April, we’re celebrating Great Westerns of the 21st Century — noteworthy movies and TV series with special appeal to C&I readers that have premiered since 2001. Check the Entertainment tab Monday through Friday to see a different recommendation by C&I senior writer Joe Leydon. And be on the lookout for our upcoming May/June 2020 print edition, which prominently features the legendary star who looms large in two of this century’s very best westerns.
They are notorious hired killers — assassins, really — who sustain their fearsome reputation by shooting first, and last, and never bothering much about asking questions afterwards. Still, there is something, if not quite lovable, then darkly comical about the title characters in The Sisters Brothers, the critically acclaimed and uniquely eccentric 2008 western based on Patrick deWitt’s picaresque novel of the same title.
But be forewarned: This is not your grandfather’s shoot-‘em-up. On the other hand, your father might recognize it as a blood relation to such revisionist westerns of the 1970s as The Hired Hand, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, The Culpepper Cattle Company and The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid.
The Sisters Brothers is the first English-language feature from French filmmaker Jacques Audiard (A Prophet, Rust and Bone), who provides a curious outsider’s point of view for what might sound in synopsis like a typical sagebrush saga, and transforms it — with more than a little help from a terrific cast and co-screenwriter Thomas Bidegain (Les Cowboys) — into something exceptional, unpredictable, and surprisingly compelling.
As Inkoo Kang wrote for the Slate website: “Unlike many of his European compatriots, Audiard, a filmmaker long attuned to racial and economic issues, is more than convincing in his depiction of the American West in his English-language debut, its perceptive and compassionate details finding harmony with the script’s genre elements. But it’s the central fraternal relationship that makes this adaptation of [deWitt’s novel] a near-masterpiece — a simmering chase movie that gradually heats up to a searing family drama that wonders how to care for a loved one that’s impossible to live with.”
Charlie Sisters (Joaquin Phoenix), a hard-drinking, itchy-trigger-fingered sociopath who takes unseemly delight in ending lives, and Eli Sisters (John C. Reilly), his appreciably less mercurial but equally lethal sad-sack older brother, are employed by the enigmatically powerful Commodore (Rutger Hauer, who doesn’t speak a word but gets his points across) as enforcers, executioners and, on rare occasions, interrogators during the California Gold Rush era. Their latest assignment: Find an idealistic young chemist, Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Amed), who has concocted a formula for finding gold, and extract from him the secrets of his scientific breakthrough by any means necessary. In this task, the siblings are assisted by John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), a rather more refined advance scout who’s supposed to locate, befriend and delay Warm until the Sisters Brothers can catch up.
Not surprisingly, nothing goes according to plan. Very surprisingly, the Sisters Brothers, who seldom aim to please, wind up getting a shot at redemption. Still, the question remains: After experiencing the childhood traumas that shaped them into killers — their shared past is only gradually revealed as the movie progresses — will it be at all possible for them to choose another path? A path, not incidentally, that they can take only while hotly pursued by the kind of men they used to be?
The Sisters Brothers currently is available on Hulu, and can be streamed on Amazon Prime, Google Play, iTunes and other platforms.