The Sisters Brothers Eli (John C. Reilly) and Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix) have been making a living for years now as assassins employed by the Commodore (Rutger Hauer). Their next job is to take out a man named Hermann Warm (Riz Ahmed), who the Commodore claims stole from him. Warm, meanwhile, makes a companion in John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), a scout who is also under the Commodore’s employ.
‘The Sisters Brothers’ marks director Jacques Audiard’s first English-language film. His previous credits of ‘A Prophet’, ‘Rust and Bone’ and ‘Dheepan’ impressed critics and earned numerous awards. ‘The Sisters Brothers’ proves another accomplished film, which completely defies expectations and becomes an engrossing watch just when you think you’re about to give up on it.
As with other westerns, ‘The Sisters Brothers’ includes some pretty establishing shots that take in the landscape. However, Audiard’s focus is on the characters and their relationships, and key to that focus is the stirring performances of the four leads.
John C. Reilly, the more sensitive, sensible brother, and Joaquin Phoenix, the more energetic, violent one with alcoholic tendencies, bounce off one another expertly. There’s an underlying care for one another that shows in just the briefest of moments, while Phoenix is convincingly harsh and mocking to his literal brother in arms. They look and act the part of cowboys with ease as well, so that ‘The Sisters Brothers’ provides a sizeable contribution to the actors’ already progressive careers (Reilly has had a big year between ‘Ralph Breaks the Internet’ and ‘Stan & Ollie’ while Phoenix has a big role coming up as he becomes the iconic ‘Joker’).
Gyllenhaal brings a whole other dimension to the film when he enters the scene. His VO dialogue is so eloquent and commanding so as to make you sit up and pay attention. His warmer, expressive tones, moreover, make for a fascinating aesthetic point of contrast to Phoenix’s dry, droll intonations. Indeed the dichotomy of pairs is a theme that Audiard explores throughout the movie as we see how the brothers and friends speak and relate to one another.
There’s more talking than action in the film, though the second half is much more eventful than the first. Its contemplative sense of pacing is moved along thanks to the strong lead performances of which Ahmed is good, Phoenix is best when paired with Reilly, and Gyllenhaal just seems to be in a league all his own. There are a few darkly funny moments – which no doubt, upon a second viewing, one would find more of – and an ending that is completely different to what you expect, but in fact, fits perfectly.
As I said, the main flaw with ‘The Sisters Brothers’ is that its first half is a bit slow. It also could’ve been edited down by about 10-15 mins. Still, the performances are that strong, second half that captivating, and finale so touching that all is forgivable.