The wide-open landscapes and primal nature of life on the frontier make the Western an ideal genre for existential cinema.
“The Sisters Brothers,” the first English language movie by the excellent French filmmaker Jacques Audiard, belongs to the revisionist tradition of works such as Robert Altman’s “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” which reject the simplistic and problematic civilization versus savagery tradition of the genre in its classic, big studio form, in favor of narratives that stress characters’ inner journeys in the face of larger notions of fate versus destiny.
Here, in Audiard’s sparse, gritty adaptation of the Patrick deWitt novel, they are explored in the differing perspectives of Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix) and Eli (John C. Reilly) Sisters. These are brothers and assassins traversing the terrain from Oregon to San Francisco, circa 1851, in search of a chemist named Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed), who is said to have a magical formula that can aid in the gold rush.
Audiard features a couple of good old-fashioned shootouts, but his primary interest lies in the relationship of these brothers and the split that emerges when the wistful Eli’s desire for a quiet, fresh start runs into conflict with Charlie’s continued affinity for their action-packed professional lives together, with its seductive promise of easy riches.
Reilly carries the movie with a performance rife with melancholy and weariness. He’s a ruthless killer and a protective older brother, threatening and vulnerable, and the best scenes in the movie allow him to play off Phoenix in such a way that the burdens of what is left unsaid loom much larger than anything regarding the forward action of the plot.
Reilly and Phoenix are so good together that the picture loses its sway whenever it cuts away from the brothers to scenes of Warm and his partner, a detective named John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal).
They’re given significant screentime and their outsized presence detracts from the intimacy between the brothers that is the movie’s strongest suit.
‘The Sisters Brothers’
Directed by Jacques Audiard
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, John C. Reilly, Riz Ahmed, Jake Gyllenhaal