It’s hard to get a handle on what kind of Western “The Sisters Brothers” is trying to be — a revisionist take on frontier violence, an outsider’s metaphor for American brutality, or just an old-school shoot-‘em-up — and that’s part of its charm.
French director Jacques Audiard, who has made such incisive dramas as “A Prophet,” “Dheepan” and “Rust and Bone,” goes to Oregon, circa 1851, for his first English-language feature. There, he introduces brothers Eli Sisters (John C. Reilly) and Charlie Sisters (Joaquin Phoenix), brothers and paid assassins in the employ of The Commodore (Rutger Hauer). Charlie, though younger, is the lead man of the team, and also more comfortable with the killing life. Eli is more reticent about taking life, and puts his priority into protecting Charlie when he’s drunk and unruly.
The Commodore’s assignment to the Sisters Brothers is to rendezvous with a detective, John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), who has been put on the trail of a chemist, Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed). The chemist, the brothers are told, stole something from the Commodore, who dearly wants it back. Morris is under orders to befriend Warm, and detain him until the Sisterses meet them. What Charlie hasn’t told Eli is that he has orders to extract from Warm, to the point of torture, his formula for a process to make gold extraction easier.
Audiard, who co-wrote with Thomas Bidegain (adapting Patrick Dewitt’s novel), spends most of the movie on the trail with Charlie and Eli, as they talk and sometimes bicker about their lethal profession. Eli would rather get out of killing and go open a store somewher, but Charlie enjoys the thrill of pursuing and dispatching people — and, besides, the Commodore would never let them give up the life.
Only when the brothers meet Morris, an intellectual taken to flowery prose, and Warm, whose belief in a utopian future is almost evangelical, do they see the possibilities of life away from the endless bloody trail. The fact that the story would entertain such a departure from the familiar Western scenario is remarkable, and transports, if only briefly, the movie to dizzying heights.
The movie is blessed with a tight ensemble, with all four main men adding subtle shades to the mix. Phoenix and Reilly are believable as irascible brothers, and their differences — Charlie’s mean streak vs. Eli’s gentleness — are set in relief by Gyllenhaal’s gentlemanly Morris and Ahmed’s idealist Warm.
The conclusion is as unexpected as what came before, but in a different way. In a movie so punctuated with gunfire and violence, the ending is oddly muted. The payoff is big, just not in the way a Western usually ends.
‘The Sisters Brothers’
Opened Sept. 21 in select cities; opens Friday, Oct. 12, at the Broadway Centre Cinemas (Salt Lake City). Rated R for violence including disturbing images, language, and some sexual content. Running time: 121 minutes.