The western genre is one of the most tride and true in the industry, with the few films released often not straying far from the beaten path. The Sisters Brothers on the other hand,which is Jacques Audiard’s English film debut, moves to the beat of its own drum, helping to create one of the year’s most surprisingly moving and accomplished films.
Eli (John C. Riley) and Charlie (Joaquin Pheonix) are brothers who have worked as assassins much of their lives. The duo are chasing after a gold prospector (Riz Ahmed) with the aid of a scout (Jake Gyllenhaal), but when their plan goes awry, the brothers begin to come to terms with their life’s work and each other.
The Sisters Brothers is certainly a film that is going to divide audiences, as it takes the beloved formula of the western genre and throws it out the window for something different entirely. In its place, Audiard creates a brazenly oft-kilter film that seamlessly melds tone, genre, and themes to perfection. It’s immensely impressive just how much this film achieves during its 2-hour running time.
Audiard’s script is packed with a bounty of wonderful surprise and thoughtful turns. The depth and humanity that is imbued into these characters at every moment is refreshing to see, as our characters feel less like western heroes and more like well-rounded characters. I appreciate the amount of subtlety and sensitivity Audiard crafts these characters with, as there is a gentleness to these broken yet dastardly characters that makes them all the more human.
As a narrative, The Sisters Brothers is one of the year’s most unpredictable features. Few films can drift from humor, to bloody violence, to intimate drama, to melancholic realizations with such ease, with Audiard’s sharp script and steady hand as a director being up for the task. Audiard’s keen visual eye is not only a feast for the eyes, but has range in depicting the adventure the characters strive for but also the depressing realities that greets them in that search. Audiard also deserves praise for his unique capturing of western shootouts, with bullets often lighting up dreary nights to an impressive effect.
Performance-wise, its hard to ask for a better ensemble. Phoenix, Gyllenhaal, and Riz Ahmed are all aces as usual, with the trio easily maneuvering the film’s tricky tone while quietly displaying the trauma that each character holds deeply. John C. Riley however is the standout, continuing to prove his status as one of the industry’s most uniquely talented actors. His sensitive performance as the Sisters’ protective older brother is a masterclass in acting, with several heartbreaking moments displaying the nuance that Riley captures onscreen. These four, whether split into duos or sharing the screen together, have delightful chemistry and make for a fun rag-tag team.
Where The Sisters Brothers surprised me the most is just how quietly moving the film is. A lot of complaints have stated that the film is not about anything thematically, and while there certainly are themes present to counter that point (the lingering effects off childhood trauma and the cost of greed being notable), the movie is a lot more rewarding as a grounded character study of the Sisters Brothers. Phoenix and Riley’s quietly revealing performances create a brother duo that is universally relatable in their dynamic. Their search for the home that they have never had in their life leads to some unexpectedly beautiful places, and I am glad to say I was along for the ride at every turn.