The untamed American West was a place of stark contrasts. A land filled with beauty and untapped potential, but it was also harsh, primal, and cruel. Fortunes could be made and lives lost in the blink of an eye, often occurring at the same moment. “The Sisters Brothers” masterfully taps into this ambiance of competing extremes and delivers one of the most engaging Westerns in years.
The title is derived from the surname of brothers Eli (John C. Reilly) and Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix). Since a young age, their life has been defined by violence and now they make a very good living as bounty hunters. Often, it’s difficult to tell which side of the law their various missions fall, but it’s safe to say they’ve been the bad guys as often as they’ve been the good. Their darkening morality keeps Eli up at night and as the elder brother, he does his best to point Charlie in the direction he will do the least harm.
Most, if not all, of their assignments, are dolled out by The Commodore (Rutger Hauer). Although we never hear him speak in the film, his influence over the brothers is clear. For their current assignment, The Commodore doesn’t want the brothers working as equal partners, instead, he promotes Charlie to “Lead Guy” and only gives him the specifics. A young chemist, Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed) has stolen something of great value and run off to California to use it. A detective, John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal) is hot on his trail sending location updates back to the Sisters Brothers.
At this point, it seems this film will take a predictable path, which is fine with a cast and production of this quality. But instead, the path the story takes and how these four main characters eventually interact is completely unexpected. About halfway through the story also begins to weave in another surprising element. Depending on the viewer, it may be seen as fantasy, or parable, or perhaps even spiritual. Regardless of your interpretation, it opens these characters up to us for full examination. We begin to see who is really watching out for whom, and what made them the men they are today. There’s also a fascinating battle between greed and the greater good.
A story like this could never work without every other element in perfect alignment. The film is perfectly cast, and the four lead men give exceptional performances. John C. Reilly, in particular, does an amazing job. There’s some dark humor sprinkled throughout this film, but Eli is no joke. Reilly‘s nuanced performance is sure to attract some nominations come awards season. Aesthetically, the film couldnt be any more perfect. Everything from the wardrobe, to the age of the wood in varying towns they visit, is spot on. The attention to detail carries over to their firearms, with some of the most accurate and intimidating black-powder shootouts I’ve seen in a Western.
It should be noted that this is a very male-centric film. Not in a negative, toxic way, but it is essentially a character study about men, and how their fathers directly affect who they become as adults. It’s insightful and fascinating, but likely isn’t a film that will engage all demographics.