The Sisters Brothers (2018)
Written by Jacques Audiard and Thomas Bidegain
Directed by Jacques Audiard
Eli and Charlie Sisters are hitmen that work for the wealthy Commodore. Their most recent assignment is to catch up with Hermann Warm, a prospector headed west in search of gold. Eli isn’t sure why they are going after this seemingly innocuous man, but Charlie assures him that this is in their best interest. Detective John Morris has been hired as an advance man to tail Warm and leave word of his progress at stops along the way for the Brothers to pick up. As the Sisters brothers make their way across the rugged landscape, they encounter natural obstacles and growing interpersonal strife. Eli believes they can leave this life one day while Charlie seems resigned to be a killer forever.
Joaquin Phoenix. Jake Gyllenhaal. John C. Reilly. Riz Ahmed. Rutger Hauer. You would think with a cast like this you’d be in for one of the best films of the year. However, something about The Sisters Brothers never clicked for me. The entire movie I felt like it was moving towards a destination that it never reaches and I was left feeling ultimately empty when the film came to its conclusion. I love a good revisionist Western and knew that’s what I was going to get here. The climactic moments you would expect based on traditional plot beats never come, and violence is quick and brutal. Our lead characters converse about their background, personal conflicts, and aspirations for the future much more than John Wayne ever did. There are great moments of discovery, like Eli using a toothbrush for the first time and having to read directions or the brothers arriving in San Francisco and being overwhelmed by an indoor toilet. Like any good revisionist Western the theme of change and progress is woven throughout.
The rambling nature of the story is charming in moments, allowing for humanity to piercing through the brutality in some moments. This could have been a film made by the late Robert Altman with its introspective, slow, and quirky tone. However, there isn’t much substance underneath the surface, and the material doesn’t accentuate the talents of its actors to the degree that it could. I consider Phoenix and Gyllenhaal to be two of our great leading actors and their performances, while good, ultimately felt flat. Absent from the movie are any over the top bloodbaths. There is a beautiful moment in the third act where the tension was building to a large moment and then we have our expectations subverted in a very satisfying and genuinely funny way.
Comedy. Drama. Something in between. The Sisters Brothers never finds a tonally footing or establishes any clear themes. It is a visually gorgeous movie that uses light and shadow masterfully. The opening shot of darkness on the plains, characters yelling back and forth echoed against the dark, illuminated only by the pop bangs of their revolvers is a great hook to pull us into the proceedings. There are the not honeyed golds and rusted clay reds of many other Westerns, here the story is told in silhouette or the stark light of the day. I was left wanting a story that matched the strengths of the movie’s actors and the luster of its visuals.