‘The Sisters Brothers’ Brings An Arthouse Sensibility To The Western

A French Director Means Long Scenes Of Ennui Amidst The Gunfights

The Wild West suuuucked. That’s the takeaway from The Sisters Brothers, a relentlessly brutal, surprisingly heartbreaking portrait of two sibling mercenaries on the 19thcentury American frontier. Reilly and Phoenix play titular anti-heroes Eli and Charlie, paid assassins who are literally shooting in the dark when the movie begins and don’t stop floundering until the very end. Their boss, the Commodore (Rutger Hauer), sends them out to do his bloody bidding, which they execute if not with dispatch, then with sloppy aplomb.

They’re good at killing—maybe too good—but first-born Eli is restless and tired, while kid brother Charlie is just plain drunk when he’s not arrogant and impulsive. They ride a brutal long-distance landscape in the rain, and live in a world where people punch corpses and wake up with a swollen face because a campfire spider crawled into their mouth.

THE SISTERS BROTHERS ★★★ (3/5 stars)
Directed by: Jacques Audiard
Written by: Audiard and Thomas Bidegain, from the book by Patrick deWitt
Starring: John C. Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix, Jake Gyllenhaal, Riz Ahmed
Running time: 121 min.


“L’ouest c’est mort.”

With so many shady characters and unreliable narrators, the least worst option for self-preservation (aside from a six-shooter) is scheming. Enter Hermann Kermit Warm (Ahmed), a California-bound chemist with a secret formula for revealing gold deposits in river beds, and detective John Morris (Gyllenhaal), recruited by the Commodore to help the Sisters brothers track down that amateur prospector and steal his recipe. Double-crosses and crossfire ensue, followed by a fragile detente and some harrowing moments of pure greed.

Reilly co-produced the film with his wife Alison Dickey after they worked with novelist deWitt on another project. It’s his first time as a producer, and kudos to him and Dickey for courting Audiard, a Palme d’Or-winning French auteur making his English-language debut. (How ironic that he’s a gun for hire on a movie about guns for hire.)

With arthouse titles like The Beat That My Heart Skipped, A Prophet, and Rust and Bone, Audiard has hammered out an indelible career sketching supple, empathetic portraits of hard-edged lives, bad decisions and tough choices. He’s an inspired choice to adapt and helm The Sisters Brothers, despite more than a few lines of stiff dialogue and a meandering pace that flirts with longueur. Reilly and his wife must have known that choosing him would limit the film’s commercial prospects—but it would also guarantee a vision of two wayward souls that’s downright haunting.

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Stephen Garrett

Stephen Garrett is the former film editor of 'Time Out New York’ and has written about the movie industry for more than 20 years. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer, Garrett is also the founder of Jump Cut, a marketing company that creates trailers and posters for independent, foreign-language, and documentary films.

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