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Film Review: The Sisters Brothers

10 April 19 words: Kel Webster

Two gun-slinging siblings stomp through 1850s Oregon on the search for gold in Jacques Audiard's off-beat Western...

Director: Jacques Audiard

Starring: John C. Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix, Jake Gyllenhaal

Running time: 122 mins

Westerns on theatrical release here in the UK are few and far between, and faithfuls to the genre will find everything they need, and more, watching The Sisters Brothers. This is a beautifully shot, sensitive western with a good dose of comedy and violence which will take you on an adventure across the unforgiving Great Plains.   

Chemist Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed) begins a somewhat distrustful friendship with John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal). Warm claims to have a chemical formula which can make the time-consuming task of panning for gold a thing of the past. Is he making it up? Does the formula exist? Is he even a chemist? Ahmed plays the role with a dash of paranoia which keeps you guessing and guessing again. Teamed up with Gyllenhaal, and mastering an interesting concoction of accents, the pair have superb chemistry between them.

Hunting them down are the Sisters siblings, Eli (John C. Reilly) and Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix). Their mission: kill Warm, steal the formula, get paid. They’re cowboy assassins for hire, and their family bond makes them the perfect duo for the job. On the long, lonely road with the Sisters we learn about their brotherly love, or lack thereof. Charlie’s the wild one, and his late-night drinking sessions make him an absolute liability in the morning. Eli, the elder sibling dreams of quitting the family business of killing. 

Although Phoenix is the bigger name, this is John C. Reilly’s film. Eli’s softer side seems out of place in the hyper-masculine Wild West period, but Reilly plays it with his usual charm to good effect. His performance is refreshingly different for the genre, and in one adorable scene in which he purchases his first toothbrush, we watch as he reads the instructions for how to use it. This all adds to his characters’ sympathetic nature and, in true Reilly style, he’s as likely to make you laugh as he is cry in The Sisters Brothers.

Because this isn’t Hollywood’s rendition of the story don’t expect it to be tied up in a pretty little bow

For the majority of the running time, the film follows two storylines which sometimes clumsily flip-flop, leaving the audience confused over the geography. I found myself wanting more from the high drama of the Warm/Morris friendship, just as things begin to heat up we’d snap back to the drunken antics of the Sisters, and all that tension felt lost. The Sisters provide the action and humour, but the heart of the story was perhaps with Warm and his master plan for a better world.

The production and costume design absolutely sell the era. As the Sisters wander from town to town (saloon hopping) on the hunt for Warm, we’re given a grand vision of life on the American frontier. But it’s worth noting none of the film was actually shot in the good ol’ USA!

In his first English language film, French director Jacques Audiard (Rust and Bone, The Prophet) shot entirely in mainland Europe, but you’d never know it from watching the film. Arid deserts and dirt roads lead the way to authentic looking towns and the beginnings of cities, and 1851 San Francisco certainly looks like a wild night out. Mud, grime and (probably) horse dung splatter the walls. The design team haven’t overlooked any of the finer details.   

With a French director at the helm, thankfully the film doesn’t dwell too much on the nostalgia of the Old West. Instead, it explores the vulnerabilities of the four leading men against that bleak landscape. Each character has different obstacles to overcome for their own redemption: greed, power, hope and survival. And because this isn’t Hollywood’s rendition of the story don’t expect it to be tied up in a pretty little bow. Seriously, it gets messy.   

Did you know? John C. Reilly optioned the film rights to Patrick deWitt's Man Booker Prize nominated novel The Sisters Brothers as early as 2011.

The Sisters Brothers is screening at Broadway Cinema until Thursday 18 April