Jacques Audiard is most commonly known for his social realist films (Dheepan, Rust and Bone) so when it was announced that the French auteur would be making a Western for John C Reilly’s production company, a few questions arose. The Sisters Brothers is not your typical Western though. Set during the period of mass migration to the West where prospectors searched every river bed for gold, and civilisations were made in a manner of weeks, the film is more interested in the effect of sudden expansion than gunslingers making their mark. The leads may be hitmen, but Adiuard’s picture is more interested in utilising its fantastic central cast to illustrate why they commit the actions that they do. A goal achieved almost perfectly.
The story begins with the titular brothers, Eli (John C. Reilly) and Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix), carrying out a job that whilst going south displays their violent determination. The sound design and use of darkness obscuring the shot really make this scene, as the outside of the house they’re storming begins as dense blackness, only to be momentarily lit up by sudden deafening shots that tear through wood and people with ease. When there is violence in the film, it is without lead up and always shocks in the impact it leaves behind. The same impact that leads to the primary conflict of the film, as Charlie’s adoration in brutal excess and Eli’s eagerness to lead a quiet life away from bloodshed see the brothers butting heads whilst carrying out another job.
The job being to get rid of a chemist with the excellent name Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed), who believes he’s found a revolutionary way to search for gold that eliminates the need for expensive equipment or manual labour. If true, this would revolutionise the booming industry, and as such the brothers’ boss The Commodore (Rutger Hauer) has his agent John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal) carry out some recon on the wunderkind. The development of their relationship, both eager for opportunity in the West drastically contrasts the Sisters Brothers fraying familiarity and delivers a strong message about the importance of individual ambition and the effect our parents have in formative years. To go further into the plot would spoil the charming surprises the film has in store, but rest assured it develops far further than the routine first half would have you believe. It is all pretty smooth, with only a few moments of gross out comedy, coming unexpectedly and detracting from the excellent script. Had the film decided to take a more lowbrow approach their inclusion would make sense but instead they feel pandering, and at worst annoying.
Technically, it’s pretty spectacular too, with director of photography Benoit Debie proving he’s at the top of his field even when not attached to Gaspar Noe’s provocative hip. The frontier is captured in a series of wide shots, only illuminated by natural light as the characters traverse its deadly mountains and expansive plains. This connection to nature is imperative to the film, the actions of the brothers counteracting the vibrant beauty of their surroundings constantly. Something that is noted and paid in return in a couple of severely intense moments. In the civilizations’ many saloons, brothels and hotels again only natural light breaks through, resulting in a subtle dramatic flair to even the most genial of encounters.
The Sister Brothers is a well-crafted film that has a surprising level of depth and utilises its central themes to demonstrate notable change in its characters and the world they inhabit. With strong performances, and a script that is a powerful realisation of Patrick Dewitt’s novel, if it weren’t for a few unfortunate missteps in its comic stylings, then this would be the perfect alternative Western.
The Sisters Brothers plays in the Glasgow Film Fest on Saturday 23rd February at 17:45. General release is on 5th April 2019.