The title seems like a joke: How the hell did Charlie Sisters (Joaquin Phoenix) and his older brother Eli (John C. Reilly) grow up in the Old West with a last name like Sisters and not get ragged on to the point of madness? It’s 1851, and the siblings work as ruthless hired guns ever-ready to kill for profit on the orders of their boss, the mostly unseen Commodore (Rutger Hauer). Conflict escalates when their overlord sends them after Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed, terrific), a mild-mannered, Middle-Eastern chemist who has invented a magic elixir that, when poured on river rocks, will highlight any gold nuggets found within the stones. The Commodore wants the Sisters to torture the formula out of Hermann and then slaughter him. Eli has qualms; Charlie doesn’t. The boss has sent along an advance man in the person of lawman John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal) to deliver Warm to the two men.
Got that? What raises the bar is the presence of Jacques Audiard in the director’s chair. A French auteur, known for such humanist dramas as A Prophet, Rust and Bone and Deephan, Audiard is making his first film in English — and it’s a western. So don’t expect him to saddle up and retrace every horse opera that’s come before. Working from a script he wrote with Thomas Bidegain from the 2011 novel by Patrick deWitt, the filmmaker brings an outsider’s view to the genre, one that throws his movie off in the best possible way. Audiard recently won the Silver Lion as Best Director at the Venice Film Festival. Watch The Sisters Brothers and you’ll have no trouble understanding why.
You expect the movie to look good and thanks to director of photography Benoit Debie, it exceeds those expectations. The story moves from the mountains of Oregon down along the California coast to San Francisco where the Gold Rush is in full swing. (It was actually shot in Spain and Romania, but who’s complaining?) For Audiard, character trumps plot at every turn. He takes the time to show the wonder in the eyes of Charlie and Eli just to see a toilet that flushes. Phoenix and Reilly dig into their juicy roles with relish, with Reilly stealing the show as the big brother who touchingly imagines a quieter, more settled life than wasting varmints. Phoenix, blending mirth and menace to just the right degree, plays Charlie as a drunk who sees no sense in settling down. And Gyllenhaal has a ball playing Morris like a walking dictionary who enunciates every syllable. It’s not that Audiard lowers the violence level: There are shootouts and bloodletting at every turn. More crucially, he wants audiences to know these men, inside and out, so we give a damn about what happens to them.
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No spoilers, but the lure of gold diverts each man from his stated goals. The Sisters Brothers may strike short attention spans as too pokey for its own good. But Audiard, referencing such classics as The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and McCabe and Mrs. Miller, sculpts his own unique vision, and it’s a knockout. There’s greed, for sure, and a vein of dark comedy that the film mines with rollicking gusto. Still, it’s the dream of the Old West that this warped Western strives to convey in all its many facets. It’s one of a kind.