The jovially titled The Sisters Brothers would have felt very much at home among the gorgeous, idiosyncratic revisionist Westerns of the early 1970s. What this will mean to audiences 45 years on is another question. This first English-language outing by the ever-adventurous French director Jacques Audiard (A Prophet, Rust and Bone) is a connoisseur’s delight, as it’s boisterously acted and detailed down to its last bit of shirt stitching. A sterling cast, led by John C. Reilly in the sort of starring role he’s been waiting for his whole career, will give this a certain profile in specialized release and down the line in home viewing venues.
As are many classic Westerns, this is a tale of pursuit and patience involving a long journey and threats known and unknown. There will also be blood, of course, vast changes of fortune and the decisive matters of chance, daring and luck.
The Sisters Brothers possesses all of the above, in addition to the curiosity of a filmmaker who has clearly taken great relish in exploring a country that is both familiar (via countless movies) and now quite distant.
For the genre faithful, it’s almost always rewarding to see the classic form being tackled by an interested outsider. Audiard, working from the well regarded 2011 novel by Canadian author Patrick deWitt, keeps things interesting all the way by virtue of his clear desire to make everything here feel built from scratch. Much as with such 1970s Western refreshers as McCabe & Mrs. Miller, The Hired Hand and Bad Company, you can feel the filmmaker’s zeal to make contact with the real Old West through the obligatory mythic passageway provided by the cinema. These films never drew a substantial public, and the same will likely be true again here, even as there are many pleasures to be had.
As with most Westerns, the story is simple: A big shot named The Commodor (Rutger Hauer) wants a foreign outsider prospector by the name of Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed) to be killed for stealing. To this end he engages a brother assassin act by the unlikely name of Eli and Charlie Sisters (Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix).
Alert to the danger, Warm takes on protection in the form of lawman/detective John Morris (Jake Gyllenhal), setting off a pursuit of untold miles and time. This set-up naturally provides excuses to cover vast tracts of unspoiled land, just what any Western needs, as the tale moves from heavily wooded Oregon down along the California coast to San Francisco in high Gold Rush dudgeon.
The two parties are a study in contrasts. Warm is something seemingly new in Westerns, a Middle Eastern prospector, a dentist by profession, while Gyllenhaal’s lawman is unusually eloquent, perhaps a victim of over-education. The Sisters boys are of a notably lower status, rougher and gruffer but not without a rollicking appeal.
The film works up an only moderate sense of momentum over the first hour at least, with the greatest pleasures emanating from the variety of landscapes (Spanish and Romanian locations pass impressively as the Far West) and the feints and jabs of the four men, both in the direction of opponents and one another. Unlike many Westerns of yore, these are not men of few words; they’re idiosyncratic, even highly articulate at times, which goes hand in hand with the invigorating stores of intelligence with which the writers have endowed the four men.
It’s hard to tell how long the pursuit goes on, but at the film’s halfway point the Sisters arrive at the Pacific (reminding at one point of the unforgettable Oceanside interlude in One-Eyed Jacks), and shortly thereafter at San Francisco, in the instant splendor and madness of its Gold Rush heyday. “This place is Babylon,” one of the brothers exclaims, as they indulge in a fancy hotel and get a load of flush toilets and gold-trimmed restaurants.
It’s during this spell by the Bay that the Sisters, and the film, take a fateful turn, as Eli proposes ditching the Commodore, thinking they can do better on their own. “We have a chance to get out,” he insists to his unconvinced brother, creating a rift that leads the tale to its inevitable rendezvous with violence. What eventually comes to pass is both unsettling and, finally, quite satisfying.
Reilly has the most expansive character here and he makes it his own, breathing deep stores of boisterous life into him. Phoenix provides a willing, if less assertive younger brother accomplice who is obliged by birth to be a second banana, while Gyllenhal and Ahmed are attractive, but rather less attention-grabbing saddlemates.
Physically, the film is a fine specimen, with production designer Michel Barthelemy and costume designer Milena Canonero providing unusually rich and detailed contributions. Alexandre Desplat’s score is icing on the cake.
Venue: Venice Film Festival
Opens: September 21 (U.S.) Annapurna
Production: Annapurna, Page 114, Why Not Productions, Michael De Luca Productions
Cast: John C. Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix, Jake Gyllenhaal, Riz Ahmed, Rutger Hauer
Director: Jacques Audiard
Screenwriters: Jacques Audiard, Thomas Bidegain, based on the novel by Patrick deWitt
Producers: Pascal Caucheteux, Gregoire Sorlat, Michel Merkt, Megan Ellison, Michael De Luca, Alison Dickey, John C. Reilly
Executive producers: Chelsea Barnard, Tudor Reu, Sammy Scher
Director of photography: Benoit Debie
Production designer: Michel Barthelemy
Costume designer: Milena Canonero
Editor: Juliette Welfing
Music: Alexandre Desplat
Casting: Francine Maisler, Cristel Baras, Mathilde Snodgrass