The Sister Brothers - 2018
Director(s): Jacques Audiard
Writer(s): Jacques Audiard and Thomas Bidegain (screenplay) / Patrick DeWitt (book)
Cinematography by: Benoît Debie
Editor(s): Juliette Welfling
Cast: John C. Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix, Jake Gyllenhaal, Riz Ahmed and Rebecca Root
The Sisters Brothers premiered in the Venice Film Festival in September of this year. It quickly garnered critical buzz for both of the leads, Reilly and Phoenix, and how well writer/director Audiard (Rust and Bone) subverted the Western genre. It was already on my radar since Phoenix is currently my favorite working actor, Gyllenhaal a close second, and Reilly is a highly underrated dramatic actor since his comedic work is so outstanding, but after the positive reception, I was a bit more excited. After watching it, my expectations were met and surpassed. Let’s talk about it.
The story centers around two famed hitmen brothers Eli and Charlie Sister (Reilly and Phoenix). They are tasked by their employer to track down gold prospector Hermann Warm (Ahmed) as he is on the run to San Francisco after stealing from his employer. Audiard and Bidegain wrote a script riddled with familiar themes and plot points we have come to expect from a Western. The hitman chasing down a bounty, the gold rush craze that led to mass migrations especially towards the west, brothels, saloons, mountain campfires, shootouts and cowboys on horsebacks. You turn off the sound and only watch the images, and you would say you are watching just another western. Yet every time they set up a plot point that makes you assume to know where the movie is going, it takes a turn in another direction, always leaving you guessing as to how it’s going to end. What set this script apart was the care and dedication they gave to their characters as each has distinct motivations and personality traits that dictated how they acted. Attributes are perfectly embodied by each of the actors.
Quick note: this movie is being sold as a dark western comedy and, while it has its moments of levity, I would never call it a comedy. It’s more an action adventure, wrapped up in a character study.
John C. Reilly plays the oldest of the brothers, and he is starting to feel the weight of his actions through the years. Feeling a sense of responsibility towards his brother, he can’t find a way out despite his constant struggle to do so. Joaquin Phoenix is the youngest and is the brash drunk with a short temper, always willing to pull out his pistol before someone else does. Proud of his ability and reputation, he doesn’t understand why his brother wants a way out, but because of his love towards him, he is willing, begrudgingly, to stand by the man who has never left his side. Their chemistry was natural, and it felt they had been together all their lives. While this movie on the surface seems like another western, it’s honestly an exploration of how our lives are deeply tied to our families. No matter how much we would want to be something else we are always marked by that last name we carry daily and how our childhood influences the adults we eventually become.
Quick note: while the movie is driven by the performances of Reilly and Phoenix, Gyllenhaal and Ahmed were great in their limited roles. I love Gyllenhaal’s accent, and proper mannerisms that encapsulated what his character is and Ahmed was well mannered and highly intellectual with an idealistic point of view of the world. Ahmed (Nightcrawler) once again was a great dancing partner to Gyllenhaal.
Jacques Audiard’s direction was perfect; he kept the movie moving forward and shined with his action scenes - something I wasn’t expecting going in. Cinematographer Benoît Debie played with a light source and gave the film a familiar look and feel. While they did showcase a few shootouts, there are some that are left to your imagination as all you hear are the gunshots in the background. The score is subtle, and it perfectly fits the tone of the movie. It doesn’t feel like your typical western score, as they are usually grandiose and they almost take over the film and become a secondary character, here it’s always under the surface highlighting the emotions but not forcing them on the audience.
The Sister Brothers is a fun character study that explores what motivates us as humans and how family ties can be both a deterrent and a driving factor to our growth. Writer-director Audiard plays with our expectations of the genre but doesn’t shy away from showing us the perils faced by the people that lived during the famed gold rush of the west. Featuring a stellar cast that delivers on all fronts and a great script, there is much to love about this movie, and I hope it eventually finds its audience. Audiard is why I love movies.
The Sister Brothers is currently playing in theaters. Go watch it.
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