Are you going to watch?
Many assumptions can be made during the opening scene of Jacques Audiard‘s The Sisters Brothers. It’s here where we meet the titular siblings (John C. Reilly‘s Eli and Joaquin Phoenix‘s Charlie Sisters) approaching a ranch with a clear warning of only wanting the man they’ve come to kill. A firefight ensues with gun blasts and light flashes in the distance until the camera pushes in on the two men storming the door to take care of those still struggling to breathe inside. They hear someone else moving in the attic, flank him on two sides, and pull the trigger before almost killing each other by accident too. And then a flaming horse runs by to spring Eli into action while Charlie simply watches a barn of animals burn.
The violence of the scene moves from chaotic to absurd with Eli eventually declaring the whole thing a disaster despite fulfilling their obligations during the mess. We therefore have to wonder what it is we’re about to experience. Are these brothers truly as formidable as Charlie would like to believe? Or does their boss (Rutger Hauer‘s The Commodore) use them because they’re expendable enough to not care about them dying in the process? There’s also room to think that Eli is the simpleton of the duo, Charlie the sociopathic brains. The former stays by the horses when the latter gets orders for their next job as though he’s the tagalong. Truth, however, will reveal itself to be a much darker and more complex beast than appearances share.
This revelation is unfortunately a long-time coming, though—something many viewers have admitted by saying the whole is slow and boring. I’ll agree with the slow part since its two hours are very deliberately paced, but I can’t say I wasn’t entertained by the intrigue of what occurs if not the short and sparse bursts of action itself. The setting and era provides the most interest because of how in-flux motivations were during the gold rush’s penchant for creating powerful men able to sway loyalties their way overnight. Just think about it. The Commodore has these brothers in his pocket because of the fee he’s willing to pay them for their services. It’s this business transaction alone that places them on the road from Oregon City to Jacksonville.
The task: kill Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed). The Commodore even sweetens the pot a bit by having sent someone else on his target’s trail to write letters and leave breadcrumbs with which to follow. John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal) has what’s arguably the harder job considering he’s basically traveling undercover to make contact, create trust, and slow Hermann down so the brothers can catch up. But what happens if the mark discovers his game? What happens when the reason The Commodore wants Hermann dead is because this pleasantly good-natured man created something that could potentially render him more valuable to Morris alive? On one side is a seemingly ruthless tyrant (we never actually “meet” The Commodore) while the other holds an idealistic genius you can’t help but befriend.
These questions are what make The Sisters Brothers more than your usual Hollywood western. They allow Audiard (who adapted Patrick DeWitt‘s novel with Thomas Bidegain) to subvert tropes while slowly exposing the brothers’ past and in turn the tragic truth to their often-volatile dynamic. They help give the whole a darkly comic bent as well—something you’d expect considering Reilly’s involvement and yet its dryly pitch black aesthetic might have you scratching your head in response to anyone labeling it a comedy. This is a good thing, though, because it means the actor is finally able to embrace the vastly underrated dramatic side of his talents. Reilly knew this too, optioning the book himself through his production company before stewarding its adaptation right from the start.
It’s not perfect since too much effort is put into giving Morris and Warm equal time to the brothers that a whole third act without them so Eli and Charlie can officially secure the spotlight felt weird by comparison. And it won’t be for everyone. But that doesn’t make it a failure. On the contrary, many viewers will surely love what it has to offer via memorable performances, impeccable cinematography, and a unique spin on the genre. There are multiple twists and turns wherein ambition gets in the way of duty and yet the consequences never lessen simply because those shirking their responsibilities are the antiheroes of note. Yes we’re supposed to pull for the brothers (or at the very least Eli), but that doesn’t erase their deeds.
They’re disreputable murderers and Morris a duplicitous stooge who has become that which he took pains to avoid becoming. These three deserve worse men tracking them down because they partake in lawless occupations within a lawless world. If not for Hermann Warm’s genuine kindness and rare sense of socialist utopian vision, their souls would be lost forever on journeys dictated by a man using their broken natures for personal gain. So when enemies do catch up—the brothers with Morris, The Commodore’s men with the brothers, or Mayfield’s (Rebecca Root) cronies with both—survival isn’t about victory. No, each opportunity to fight another day takes a bit more from them. To live is to kill and killing is to move further from the men they could have been.
Don’t expect happy endings because the best you’ll get is bittersweet. This renders everything that much more authentic, though, with swiftly violent deaths and greed-fueled missteps destroying futures just when they seem brightest. Ahmed and Gyllenhaal are great in their roles as men flirting with outlaw life despite believing themselves able to stop whenever they want. Phoenix is on the edge of unhinged but never over as the depressive reality of his identity prevents him from becoming a cartoon. And Reilly steals the show with obvious heart, empathy, and hope in direct opposition to the homicidal blood coursing through his veins. We laugh at their pratfalls, enjoy their selfishly traitorous desires, and lament their hubris once it’s revealed that survival might just be bad luck rather than good.
 Joaquin Phoenix (left) stars as “Charlie Sisters” and John C. Reilly (right) stars as “Eli Sisters” in Jacques Audiard’s THE SISTERS BROTHERS, an Annapurna Pictures release. Credit : Magali Bragard / Annapurna Pictures
 Riz Ahmed (left) stars as “Hermann Kermit Warm” and Jake Gyllenhaal (right) stars as “Morris” in Jacques Audiard’s THE SISTERS BROTHERS, an Annapurna Pictures release. Credit : Magali Bragard / Annapurna Pictures
 John C. Reilly (left) stars as “Eli Sisters” and Joaquin Phoenix (right) stars as “Charlie Sisters” in Jacques Audiard’s THE SISTERS BROTHERS, an Annapurna Pictures release. Photo Credit : Magali Bragard / Annapurna Pictures