Opening this weekend is the latest in the budding sub-genre of sensitive, revisionist Westerns (following on the heels of Slow West and Damsel), The Sisters Brothers, a view on the classic gunslinger trope that allows for existential dilemmas and regret. Adapted by Thomas Bidegain and director Jacques Audiard from Patrick DeWitt’s novel, The Sisters Brothers has an offbeat rhythm and slightly askew perspective that makes for a meandering but engaging story. Lainey, Sasha, and I all saw it at TIFF. It’s not their favourite, not even close, but I really like it, which seems about right for how this will appeal widely. None of these new-era Westerns, so far, have been about broad appeal, and The Sisters Brothers is too specific in its aesthetic and purpose to make everyone happy.
The Sisters brothers are Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix), the volatile one, and Eli (John C. Reilly), the sensible one. They have a reputation as gunslingers and work for “The Commodore” (Rutger Hauer), a shady expansionist type. The Commodore isn’t a real character, he’s a father figure and looming threat and Charlie and Eli spend a lot of their time on the trail wondering what to do about The Commodore. Charlie likes working for him, he clearly revels in the dubious prestige of his reputation and everything The Commodore affords him, but Eli has reservations. He’s tiring of the trail, and apparently a good woman somewhere wished him well once, which is enough to make Eli crave hearth and home.
But for the moment they’re working for The Commodore, tracking down a prospector who has cheated him. That man, Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed), has a secret formula for finding gold. Also trailing Warm is John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal with an accent like an old timey telephone operator), a Pinkerton type who is meant to round up Warm for the Sisters. Much of the film is staged like a cat-and-mouse, cutting between the Sisters and Morris and Warm as they ramble through Oregon and Northern California during the gold rush. That rhythm suits the actors just fine, as Phoenix and Reilly are perfectly matched, and it is delightful to see Ahmed and Gyllenhaal reunited. They’re all so well-suited as scene partners, much of the pleasure of the film derives simply from watching them interact. (Lainey: although asking Jake about this got me into trouble.) Audiard doesn’t need to do anything except let his actors act, and he does just that for the most part.
Without doing anything overt or fancy, Audiard captures a West that is brutal and violent and yet civilizing quickly. Morris observes how fast settlements turn into proper towns, and as the group moves South things become increasingly settled, radiating out from San Francisco. Of course it is still a harsh land and a harsh life. A beach containing the flotsam and jetsam of a shipwreck is a reminder of how difficult the journey was, and even established towns can turn violent on a whim, but part of the Sisters’ ongoing debate about their future revolves around Eli’s instinct that their lifestyle is not sustainable in the long term. Not just because someone might kill them, but because, really, how long can The Commodore operate like this? Eli wants a way out before he gets killed, but The Commodore and his own brother are in his way.
The Sisters Brothers is a film that takes the time for two men to discuss the future when they live a life precipitated on death, yet also features some of the grossest things committed to camera (one scene calls to mind Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark). It’s also hard on horses—this was a bad year for horses at TIFF—so beware of that. Though Eli does have a soft spot for his horse, and again, Audiard takes the time to let his characters work through even these “minor” losses. This is not a story in a rush. Just as the Sisters are trekking through the wilderness, so is the audience trekking through the narrative. The Sisters Brothers is basically a road movie on horseback, a little Zane Grey and a lot Paul Sartre. It’s kind of a comedy? It’s a revisionist Western road movie comedy with a heaping side of existential drama and great performances. That about covers it.
The Sisters Brothers is slow-rolling its release over the next several weeks, so watch your local listings.