The Sisters Brothers (2018)
The Sisters Brothers (2018)

Genre: Western and Drama Running Time: 2 hrs. 1 min.

Release Date: September 21st, 2018 MPAA Rating: R

Director: Jacques Audiard Actors: John C. Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix, Jake Gyllenhaal, Riz Ahmed, Rebecca Root, Allison Tolman, Rutger Hauer, Carol Kane

 


 

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n the harsh landscapes of 1851 Oregon, brothers Eli (John C. Reilly) and Charlie Sisters (Joaquin Phoenix) carry out savage deeds for merciless magnate “The Commodore” (Rutger Hauer). The bounty hunters’ latest quarry is mild-mannered Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed), a chemist who has stolen something of importance from the tycoon. Already on his trail is duplicitous sleuth John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), a tracker with a flair for writing, who has agreed to locate Hermann and await the arrival of the Sisters brothers in Jacksonville. But when Morris learns of his target’s possession and idealistic intent, he abandons his employer’s wishes, determining to aid Warm in a journey to California – a decision that will change the lives of pursuers and hunted alike.

It begins with the common components of revisionist Westerns: boisterousness, blazing revolvers, and bloody violence. Yet it also hints at its artistic side by setting its introduction in the dead of night, with bright bursts of gunfire and a burning barn intermittently illuminating the action-oriented atrocities on display. It may revel in stripping away the glamor of classic Hollywood Westerns, focusing instead on the ugliness of Old West life (using cursing, smoking, drinking, a general dirtiness, and even body horror), but there’s something deeper at work. At its heart, “The Sisters Brothers” is about the capacity for change.

Despite the frequent bickering, the callousness of assassins, and the unnecessary multiple perspectives (utilizing voiceover narration through the reading of a journal), the picture studies the easygoing humor of learning to use a toothbrush or the discovery of other uncommon amenities, all while also glimpsing the minutia of life on the trail – from eating to sleeping to drunken quarreling to contending with bugs. It’s here that it’s the slowest, perhaps pondering too much on the details or comprehensive examinations of unpleasantries and routines (and even nightmares), but it nevertheless aids in the greater goal: to pick apart the characters and see what drives them. In between these moments, Alexandre Desplat’s music is breathtaking, creating a percussion-heavy motif for the Sisters’ misadventures.

As the film develops its intricate characters, it scrutinizes their dynamic natures, seeing them transform from morally questionable antiheroes into incredibly complex people; humanity is never black and white in the hands of filmmakers wishing to look beyond mere actions. Charlie is reckless and cruel, while Eli aspires to be something more than a hired gun; by the end, Charlie undergoes the greatest shift in personality, discovering the harmony of communication and teamwork – something entirely unexpected from this formerly uncontrollable, determined killer. And Eli explores his sensitive side, as well as his self-imposed duty to watch over his younger sibling. Part of this stems from the idea of educated, philosophical minds clashing with coldblooded barbarism; psychological enlightenment seems to be the path to civility. Redemption only arrives when these personas can move past the chaos; heartlessness infects order.

“You hit me in public, Charlie!” There are still shootouts and campfires and prospecting, but “The Sisters Brothers” is so much more than a Western. It’s an absorbing character study that alternates its carnage with a poignancy that borders on poetic. This is never more apparent than with the finale, which sees the hunters becoming the hunted, and which goes so far as to offer up a twist on the conventions of a climactic showdown. Tropes are avoided, substituted instead for a nuanced tale of unanticipated growth and senses of obligation dramatically fulfilled. It’s rare to see a neo-Western, but it’s even rarer to see one with such a singular grasp on designing emotional, affecting characters.

– The Massie Twins

  • 9/10