What’s Up at the Movies: Review of “The Sisters Brothers”

French director Jacques Audiard’s first English-language film The Sisters Brothers opens with darkness. It is nighttime, and because the sky is a little bit lighter than the ground, you can just see the horizon. You can tell the camera is pulled back and that you’re seeing an expansive landscape, but the shadows melt into each other whenever you look for an identifiable shape. Then you hear a voice yelling, but quietly enough to let you know you’re hearing it from a distance. The voice claims to be one of the Sisters brothers, and he lets his enemies know they don’t stand a chance. First a moment of silence, and then the shooting starts.

The sound of the gunfire is solid and violent, like miniature canons, but what you notice the most are the bright sparks of light. Each shot illuminates part of the scene until the situation becomes clear — on the left is a farmhouse, where a few men are firing from the porch, and on the right is where the titular brothers have taken cover and are shooting back. The story is told through the sound design, with the yelling from the left suggesting the brothers have better aim, but the cinematography is so striking that you can’t help but just look at it for a while.

This opening shot is the first of many times you will notice how beautifully filmed this move is. Eli and Charlie Sisters, played by the perfectly paired John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix, are two hitmen living in Oregon City at the time of the Gold Rush. Sent to track down Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed), a chemist-turned-prospector with a secret formula that makes gold glow in water, the two ride South into California, crossing through stunning natural landscapes and lovingly crafted Old-Western towns. Everything looks as if it was filmed using natural light, giving the movie a realistic, tangible feel. The attention to period detail is remarkable, and the costumes and sets breathe life into the world these characters inhabit. Before diving into the narrative, it must be said that Audiard crafted The Sisters Brothers with obvious devotion.

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The plot does not share the same cohesion, however, and feels almost episodic, though this is not entirely a bad thing. The film wanders as the characters do, drifting into subplots that fill their larger journey with little arcs of development, and this structure is likely a remnant of it being adapted from a novel. In this way, time is drawn out — not only does the movie feel longer than it is, but also like we are seeing a more expansive story than we actually are. It’s as if we’ve been shown years of Eli and Charlie bounty hunting together, rather than the few weeks this job takes, and the film works best when it surpasses the plot and allows itself to be about the two brothers.

John C. Reilly stars in The Sisters Brothers

Eli and Charlie Sisters find themselves in opposite states of mind. Charlie is the younger and more violent of the two, a heavy drinker who relishes his work and actively cultivates the pair’s notoriety. Eli is a much gentler soul who has grown weary of their way of life, always on the road surviving instead of living. He is constantly drawn to civilization, his first experiences with a toothbrush and a flushing toilet being two of the film’s most openly comedic moments, but the towns they pass through only allow Charlie to dive deeper into debauchery. He instead seems much happier in the wilderness, camping in forests alone with his brother, but nature repeatedly attacks Eli (most memorably in the form of a spider). Reilly and Phoenix both give excellent performances that feed off each other, and they inhabit the familiarity of real brothers, making every scene they share compelling.

The scenes exclusively between Warm and John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), the detective sent to detain him for his coming execution, are less engaging and drag somewhat, only fracturing the storytelling further. They exist to give the film its thematic anchor — the power of greed to destroy lives — but truly, the central relationship is enough. I was lucky to see this film at the Avon, the historic independent cinema in Providence, which only added to the charm of this unique Western. If you can’t find a screening near you, keep your eye out for when it becomes available on DVD or online, because The Sisters Brothers is an entertaining, thoughtful and well-crafted artwork that should be seen.

WhatsUpRI Rating: 3.5 out of 5

WhatsUp Ratings Guide
5- Excellent – Don’t miss it
4- Very Good – Well worth your time
3- Good – Solid, but not earthshattering
2- Fair – Not quite ready for prime time
1- Poor – Don’t waste your time or money