The Western may be a uniquely American film tradition, but the genre often has been at its best in the hands of foreign directors who examine that era of outlaws and westward expansion from an outsider’s lens. Sergio Leone, for one, saw something deeply compelling in the blurred lines between good and evil, where so many American directors that came before him exploited the dichotomy, exalting one set of men as heroes and demonizing the others simply as bad guys.
But the American West, that expanse of isolation and sweeping beauty, always had potential for more humane stories. France’s Jacques Audiard has now tossed his Stetson into the ring with the surprisingly kind and moving The Sisters Brothers, based on the novel by Patrick deWitt. Ultimately a story about brotherhood, friendship and the insecurity of life in a violent place, the film injects a sweetness and innocence into the genre, mostly through one stellar performance by John C. Reilly.
Reilly plays Eli, one half of the Sisters brothers, a crack-shot murderer for hire who tempers the erratic sensibilities of Charlie Sisters (Joaquin Phoenix), whose anger is as quick as his gun. The brothers are commissioned by their boss, the Commodore (Rutger Hauer), to find and torture a pioneer chemist, Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed), to extract the man’s chemical formula for discovering gold. Warm is already being tracked by another Commodore man, John Morris, played by Jake Gyllenhaal with a precise and effective mid-Atlantic accent that nicely contrasts the folksiness of the brothers and Warm’s own casual, accent-less language. Although the three Commodore men have murdered and schemed and stolen, they’re depicted generously as tired men just performing their jobs, all having come to the West for a better future only to teeter on a knife’s blade of life and death.
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Warm is the outlier, a man brimming with excitement and knowledge, one whose simple yet complex goal is to stake a river claim, find the gold hidden in the bed using his formula and use the money to establish a “true democratic society” in Dallas. The Sisters and Morris come equipped with bullets, but they’re no match for Warm’s unabashed earnestness, something that particularly draws in Eli.
Reilly exhibits a bruised vulnerability as the shy, perpetually sighing but protective older brother. Charlie, meanwhile, is brash, the kind of disordered and damaged man we’ve seen Phoenix play before, but the two actors elevate the characters to create something fresh in Westerns — a genuine depiction of sibling love. They’ll bicker bitterly until Charlie does something he can’t take back, and just when it seems like that’s the end of their relationship, Eli finds a path into forgiveness. In one scene, in a fancy restaurant, Charlie picks at his brother until he slaps Eli across the face. The next morning, Charlie pretends he doesn’t remember so he doesn’t have to apologize. The hurt on Eli’s face as he explains that it wasn’t just that Charlie hit him but that it was embarrassing because it was in public is something new in this genre. Tell me another Western where one of the strongest male characters expresses his shame with such emotional clarity — and isn’t punished, by the film or the other characters, for the possible betrayal of some masculine code.
In some ways, this film suggests a reimagining of Of Mice and Men, in that Eli would sacrifice his life for his maladjusted little brother; I kept wondering when Eli might off Charlie for his own good. And though there’s tragedy, the tone never veers into melodrama and remains quite tender to the end, buoyed by frequent scenes of levity and camaraderie. The brothers’ verbal and physical sparring makes up the bulk of this film but never becomes mean-spirited. It’s a feat to depict the two leads expertly murdering people left and right and yet still reveal them as thinking, feeling people, simply reacting to their environment. The artful but unshowy dialogue lacks both bravado and gravitas and feels absolutely real for these characters.
The specialness of The Sisters Brothers could be summed up by one scene featuring Allison Tolman as a pallid, wide-eyed prostitute in a brothel. Eli asks the woman to go upstairs and talks her through an awkward role-playing scenario, where she is supposed to hand him a folded scarf and tell him how much she’ll miss him. He seemingly doesn’t even want sex, just a kiss. She is so unnerved by the interaction that she stands to leave, while he apologizes for whatever he did. She responds, “You’re just so kind. I’m not used to that.” The kindness in The Sisters Brothers is at first jarring, but also absolutely welcome.