Film Review: The Sisters Brothers

Much more than a shoot 'em up.
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It gets a bit boring to say to say “John C. Reilly delivers a performance brilliant enough to make his contemporaries want to chuck their Oscars in the bin”—because when does he not? From dramas (We Need to Talk About Kevin) to comedies (Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story), from good movies (Boogie Nights) to not-so-good (Chicago), Reilly, like the allegorical working mother of so many breathless women’s mag essays, Can Do It All. The man’s a golden god. He delivers another performance that, for 99% of his fellow actors, would represent a career best—but for Reilly is, like, a Tuesday—in Jacques Audiard’s decidedly modern-feeling western The Sisters Brothers.

On its surface, the story of The Sisters Brothers is fairly standard: Two bounty hunter brothers, Eli (Reilly) and Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix) Sisters, are hired by the Commodore—your archetypical Big Bad of western fare, rarely seen, his looming shadow given sufficient menace by Rutger Hauer in what amounts to little more than a cameo—to take out one Hermann Kermit Warm. As befitting his less-than-intimidating name, Hermann is not a criminal but a chemist, played with a combination of, well, warmth and steely-eyed determination to do what’s right by Riz Ahmed of "The Night Of." Hermann’s general decency poses a problem for the final character in The Sisters Brothers’ ensemble, a tracker (Jake Gyllenhaal) hired to follow Hermann and report his whereabouts to the two men who have ultimately been instructed to kill him.

Gyllenhaal and Ahmed deliver great performances, but the real show here belongs to Reilly and Phoenix, both playing characters particularly well-suited to their personalities as actors. Charlie, the younger of the two, is bombastic and brash, his self-destructive tendencies springing from a deep well of insecurity and self-hate. (The Sisters Brothers would make for a fine double feature with Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here, in which Phoenix plays another character whose violent tendencies mask a desire to form some sort of human connection.) Older Eli doesn’t really like what they do, and he’s constantly put down by Charlie for not being sufficiently good at it, but his desire to prevent his brother from full-on imploding keeps him going. The character is pathetic, in a way, and a little bit buffoonish—he kills people for a living, but damned if the scene where he’s delighted by this new invention called “toothpaste” doesn’t make you want to hug him.

The Sisters Brothers starts out, if not outright comic, then at least possessed of a certain swashbuckling levity, a devil-may-care energy that reflects Charlie’s attitude towards what they do. As the film goes on, Audiard and editor Juliette Welfling seamlessly shift their film to a more sober meditation about the lives of Charlie and Eli and about the great myth of early America as a whole.

What The Sisters Brothers ultimately turns into is a sort of Odyssey of the American West. Its main characters ride from setting to setting—a lawless saloon town, the "modern" metropolis of San Francisco (it has toilets!), and a sort of Walden-esque idyll—in search less of money than of something much more elusive: happiness. In this, The Sisters Brothers transcends its genre roots to offer up something much more profound, as of course the best westerns do. In a world where everything moves so fast, where it’s a constant struggle to find purpose, or hell, just to keep your head above water, The Sisters Brothers asks what does it mean to just find a life worth living? The ending strikes like a bolt to the chest, a fitting coda to the family story that’s come before.