The Sisters Brothers is not just not your typical western, it’s not your typical anything. Jacques Audiard’s film is incredibly hard to categorise in both positive and negative ways. The cast is star-studded, led by the fantastic John C. Reilly, seesawing between comedy and tragedy brilliantly. On the surface, the film is an elongated chase between the eponymous brothers and chemist Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed) along the western frontier. There are individual scenes of brilliance, equally funny, shocking and thrilling but the whole feels a little disjointed, as if all the individual pieces don’t quite fit together perfectly.
Eli (John C. Reilly) and Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix) Sisters are tasked by their enigmatic boss, the Commodore to track and kill Hermann Kermit Warm, a man with a chemical recipe that could change the entire west. The brothers are antitheses. Eli is the older, gentler man with a love for horses and a desire to make an honest living one day. Charlie is the borderline psychopathic younger brother with a love for drinking and extreme violence. Despite being younger, Charlie’s ruthlessness puts him in charge. The brothers set off on their journey to meet John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), another of the Commodore’s hired guns, stalking Warm up ahead. As the brothers make it closer to Warm, they are plagued by rival gangs, bears, spiders and their own shortcomings as everyone races to capture Warm.
The dialogue in The Sisters Brothers is funny and the chemistry between the characters is obvious to any audience. Conversations between Phoenix and Reilly in particular are hilarious as the two bickering siblings. The action too, is used in moderation and not over-the-top: there are no unlimited bullets here. The sound in the film is stunning too, from Alexandre Desplat’s score which perfectly drapes the wonderful scenery of the Old West to the deafening sound effects. It genuinely feels like the sound has been turned up to 11 during the firefights, ripping gunshots through the cinema. It gives all of the action a visceral, realistic feel. The nature of the brothers’ journey takes them through a number of different habitats too which are beautifully captured by the cinematography from the forests of the pacific North-West to the deserts of pre-industrial California.
The film feels stilted at times however, like each scene is a stand-alone story along the brothers’ mission. Indeed, Audiard tries to introduce too many different ideas throughout, bringing some in at one point of the story, only to discard it and move on to the next concept as his characters ride on. Annoyingly, it leaves many of the questions it poses unanswered and worse still, leaves some of the characters lacking real depth, beyond quips and philosophical discussions. This is especially annoying as we are teased with a little bit of backstory, which is supposed to explain the characters’ mindsets but is never expanded upon. The film dismisses its characters as products of their environment, never really getting to the heart of them.
The Sisters Brothers is a frustrating film, excellent in bursts but structurally unsound. There are too many ideas introduced to possibly resolve them all, resulting in an ending that feels superimposed. The performances are superb all round, but the majority of the characters seem to lack depth, serving merely as vessels for philosophical dialogue on the nature of the Old West. The film is, however, beautiful, visceral and very enjoyable overall, even if it doesn’t achieve as much as it could.
Ewan Wood | ★★★ 1/2
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Western, Comedy | USA/France, 2018 | 15 | Glasgow Film Festival | Universal Pictures | Dir. Jacques Audiard |John C. Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix, Jake Gyllenhaal, Riz Ahmed,