The Sisters Brothers is in no way related to Brother Sun, Sister Moon about the life of St Francis of Assisi. This is cleared up in the first few minutes of this unusual western in a haunting metaphor as a horse canters away… in flames. This shocking image is a precursor for The Sisters Brothers, serving as a test for sensitive viewers and taking the classic idea of a western and setting it on fire. Based on the novel of the same name by Patrick deWitt and directed by Jacques Audiard, who was at the helm of Rust and Bone and A Prophet, it’s no ordinary western.
Set in 1850s Oregon, The Sisters Brothers centres around the misadventures of the infamous assassin duo and their cross-country pursuit of a gold prospector and his unexpected ally. While it kicks off with a violent shoot out, is punctuated by the odd showdown and the guns have their own fireworks… it’s more in tune with the zany and adventurous spirit of Oh Brother, Where Art Thou. The mercurial western genre at play in The Sisters Brothers has the movie shape-shifting to accommodate nuggets of adventure, comedy, drama and even horror. While it borrows from the western genre quite liberally, it always feels fresh.
The Sisters Brothers leans on classic western elements such as the gold rush, brothels, bars, small town streets and roughing it in the wild. Yet, nothing seems overly cliched, operating with a modern swagger and a dark comedy edge. Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly are the Sisters Brothers, Charlie and Eli. While Phoenix recently garnered acclaim and a slew of awards for his transformative role as Arthur Fleck in Joker, Reilly is the star of this show. There’s a strange common denominator in Walk the Line as Phoenix played Johnny Cash and Reilly starred in its rock biopic spoof, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story.
John C. Reilly is an underrated actor. Often tasked with second fiddle roles and constrained by his appearance, he’s no slouch… immersing himself in his characters, showing outstanding commitment and dexterous enough to handle comedy, drama or anything inbetween. The Sisters Brothers will go down as one of his most in-form years as an actor, releasing at a similar time to Stan & Ollie, in which he played one half of the iconic comedy duo, Laurel & Hardy.
“So this old cowboy walks into a bar…”
His co-stars usually dictate the genre as with regular partner in crime, Will Ferrell, yet Phoenix is usually straight up drama making this unlikely pairing all the more curious. Surprisingly it works! You don’t question their blood relation as the infamous assassins execute their missions with a sense of rich shared history, debauchery and suffering. Their co-lead dynamic is echoed by Jake Gyllenhaal and Riz Ahmed, supporting actors who could very well have taken top billing in another western.
Putting the surprising Phoenix-Reilly chemistry to good use, Audiard supplants his audience in a whole range of outlandish scenarios from trying to outwit a brothel owner to chasing a wiley prospector across the Old West. Adding some funny elements like the introduction of toothbrushes, criminality in emerging cities and gold rush fever… it’s the kind of project you could imagine the brothers behind The Ballad of Buster Scruggs writing and directing. While Audiard keeps The Sisters Brothers engaging and constantly evolving, the hot pursuit doesn’t give the film enough structure. It’s entertaining enough to keep you watching but almost loses itself at times as if using the map upside down.
The Sisters Brothers is a refreshing Old West expedition, toying with genres, layered with gold rush tension and brandishing two shiny six-gun shooters, but is hampered by its meandering plotting. It’s not the best day out for Gyllenhaal and Ahmed, but is boosted by the overall quality of the ensemble and relieved by its quirky sense of humour. Whether faithful to the novel or bending the genre rules too much, the symbol of a runaway horse on fire is carried through with gusto even if purpose isn’t all that clear.
The bottom line: Elusive