It’s 1851, the gold rush era of the West Coast. Horses are still coveted means of transportation, bars are called saloons and toilets that flush are a luxury; men are unapologetic killers while women are still largely relegated to the background.
French director and co-screenwriter Jacques Audiard sets out to upend some of the Western tropes for his first English-language picture, “The Sisters Brothers.” This venture is executed with inconsistent flourish, however, and some revisions can feel weightless.
Based on Patrick deWitt’s 2011 novel of the same name, the film centers on two skilled mercenaries/brothers, Eli and Charlie Sisters (played by John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix, respectively) who contrast each other in size and sentiment. The brothers are hired by their elusive boss, known only as the Commodore, to retrieve a stolen formula and assassinate the perpetrator: chemist Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed). In the meantime, John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), a detective working for the Commodore, is expected to have Warm in his sight by the time the brothers arrive.
The Western antihero’s journey and obstacles unravel in seemingly familiar ways. The men get belligerently drunk, don’t think twice about robbing and find themselves in several last-man-standing shootouts.
But a sensitive disposition and a change of heart brought on by that sensitivity are the true players that make “The Sisters Brothers” feel like an interesting and oftentimes humorous ride.
Eli and Charlie’s dissonant outlooks and expressions are comical for the most part. When Eli tells Charlie, “Our father drank,” he unpacks his brother’s pithy statement about “foul blood” inherited from their father and simply calls it like it really is. It’s this self-awareness and an additional soft spot that cause Eli to frequently clash with Charlie and his desire to complete the job and someday live as lavishly as his boss.
The comedy through conflict of personalities can be endearing, even when it sometimes reaches campy levels. They fight the way rowdy and aggressive brothers do. And Eli’s strange affection toward a red scarf and the way he uses a toothbrush for the first time are both childlike. In these scenes, it helps that Reilly actually looks like an old baby.
More notable, however, is Audiard and co-screenwriter Thomas Bidegain’s refusal to succumb to the brooding Western male center with a singular range of emotions born from an existential or moral crisis. Eli’s moral compass may falter, but it doesn’t shut down his ability to experience sympathy. He still cares for his horse, and he still looks out for his brother. Reilly’s character is full of color.
Sometimes, particularly with Gyllenhaal’s character, efforts to make these figures more relatable aren’t too convincing. With just two or three additional scenes of dialogue, Morris would turn into a man with a complete change of heart.
And there are other moments where Audiard tries to make “The Sisters Brothers” feel like a fresh and relevant Western gunslinger but doesn’t commit. For example, Mayfield, a proprietor of a brothel who is male in the original novel, is switched to a female character in the film (played by trans actress Rebecca Root). But Root’s moment in the light ends up feeling like a stray aside that is abruptly cut short.
Since the Western genre extends far into cinema’s history, and since the mid-1960s brought the onset of the Revisionist Western subgenre, one is inclined to talk about how films such as “The Sisters Brothers” revise the category. After all, if the Western truly is a point of reference for America’s self-image, any sort of changes might tell us where our country is today.
Audiard’s Wild West landscape doesn’t make any grand statement –– and oftentimes it doesn’t seem like the director is trying to. Most likely, he trades that opportunity for a chance to entertain us and make us laugh. But what “The Sisters Brothers” does tell us about our world, through this Western backdrop, is that it is a little more diverse and still filled with conflict and uncertainty.