The Sisters Brothers Review
Few things truly encompass the American dream, in all its wretchedness and grandeur, like legacy of The Oregon Trail. Western movies however take unabashed pride in romanticising the incredibly tumultuous period that was the American Frontier. Ruggedly gorgeous men and landscapes (in equal parts) and pistol duels distract from a more accurate snapshots of the Old West.
Despite this being almost exactly how The Sisters Brothers opens - a duel in the dark with the Sisters brothers shouting “you don’t stand a chance”- you quickly learn this is a western that will tackle a lot more than a few buckshots. What follows the duel is a conversation between Eli (John C. Riley) and Charlie (Joaqiun Pheonix) Sisters about the correct ways in which to use grammar and the subtleties of genetics.
What lay at the end of The Oregon Trail was what would become the future state, full of settlers ready to exercise their interpretation of American freedom. In
The protagonists of this western story, the Sisters brothers are master hitmen, sent by The Commodore (Rutger Hauer) to kill the alchemist Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed) for stealing a formula from him. The chemical formula is rumoured to isolate gold in the water well enough that all one must do is wait for nightfall and simply pluck the gold from out the river. Someone with this level of intelligence and cunning is bound to be elusive, so, The Commodore also sends out John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal) to track Hermann and lead the Sisters brothers to him. No one questions the legitimacy of The Commodore’s accusation because they will all be paid handsomely.
Director Jaques Audiard does a fine job of heightening the intrigue of the plot and humanising what would probably be stoic one dimensional cowboys in another’s hands. Adapting Patrick de Witt’s book of the same name with co-screenwriter Thomas bidegen, his first attempt at film in the English language is a little long-winded but a triumphant dark comedy.
We learn all of these men are destined for a different life but are ultimately products of their environment. Despite being men of culture: adopting the regular use of the toothbrush before most, dreaming of opening quirky stores and starting socialist utopian societies, they are still driven by the idea money will solve everything, putting themselves in danger for gold.
The environmental dangers of travelling on The Oregon Trail were prevalent. A spider Eli eats in his sleep, almost poisoning him to death. Could it have been his newly freshened breath from brushing his teeth that attracted it to his mouth? It doesn’t matter because they’re still going to travel and collect their bounty.
Being forever fearful of what feels like an omnipresent commodore with eyes, ears and guns everywhere doesn’t stop our characters either. When they realise there’s an out from working for The Commodore The Sisters brothers believe they can shoot their way out and Hermann believes his invention and idealism can outrun big business and big government. Despite benefiting greatly from how his life under the Commodore, Morris feels he’s ready for something different, a great reflection of society today.
Audiard uses the template of a western to space out these big-picture ideas. There’s a mirrored duality in his two pairs of protagonists, Eli and John the reliable realists and Charlie and Hermann the wild optimists. The chemistry and skill set between the four is interchangeable and you believe they can achieve their individual and collective goals.
You have realistic looking shootouts, majestic valleys and a B story about a horse. One of The Commodore’s more prominent personifications in Mayfair (Rebecca Root) is a trans woman cast in a role written as a man and leads one of the most tense and dazzling sequences. Another standout scenes see’s our characters pay tremendously for their caustic greed. People don’t have to die constantly for a western to be good.
In summary, The Sisters Brothers is a western treated with respect. It fires from the hip trying to mark multiple grand ideas and bullseyes them all. While I left gauging how these commentaries played out in my life, I still find it difficult to rationalise the idea that people would just hop on a horse to go to the shops.
The Sisters Brothers (2018)
Dir: Jacques Audiard | Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Joaquin Phoenix, John C. Reilly, Riz Ahmed | Writers: Jacques Audiard (screenplay by), Patrick DeWitt (based on the book by), Thomas Bidegain (screenplay by)