Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix) and Eli Sisters (John C. Reilly) are hired guns who roam the Pacific Northwest in the 1850s, as the Gold Rush booms in new states such as California and Oregon. The duo are, as Charlie puts it, “good at what we do,” and what they do is sow bloodshed—shooting whomever they’re told, barging in where they don’t belong, and generally letting might make right. Yet somehow they’re still the heroes of The Sisters Brothers, Jacques Audiard’s beautifully strange travelogue of death and rebirth on the wild frontier; the French director has adapted the Canadian author Patrick deWitt’s novel and created something that speaks to a uniquely American darkness.
The revisionist Western is, of course, hardly a new concept—filmmakers have been taking one of Hollywood’s earliest genres and warping it in unusual ways for decades. Still, The Sisters Brothers feels special. It has the painterly visuals of a classic film, but its lead characters are black-hatted villains whose road to redemption is mostly motivated by exhaustion rather than guilt. The story is grim and violent, but the brothers’ relationship is shot through with ramshackle humor, and the men they’re ultimately tasked with pursuing are portrayed as loving and idealistic—an utter rarity for this kind of story.
Charlie and Eli’s targets are Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed), a chemist who has devised a formula for detecting gold in a river, and John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), a hoity-toity detective who’s hired to keep tabs on Warm but quickly finds himself enamored of the scientist’s view of the world. Warm is an optimist, possessed of an egalitarian vision of the frontier’s future, where things like his formula can be used to advance the greater good and create more progressive communities. It’s an aspect of the Wild West that’s usually underdiscussed: the notion that a radically open-minded society, not just more bloodshed, could spring out of lawlessness.
Into this utopian vision charge the Sisters brothers, who represent a much more prevalent way of doing business in America: They’re paid bullies who frighten or kill anyone in the path of their wealthy employer, the Commodore (Rutger Hauer). Charlie is more charismatic, but nasty and quick-tempered. Eli presents as brutish, but nurses a gentler side and has begun to beg his brother to retire. Audiard films their early endeavors in the dark, as their gunfire lights up a barn they raid and set aflame; for all of the movie’s humor, the pair are little more than ghouls, primitive nightmares stalking through the wilderness.
Phoenix plays Charlie with a verve and spirit that have mostly been lacking from his more serious performances of late (in films with unwieldy titles such as You Were Never Really Here or Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot). Reilly, who emerged as a dramatic actor in mid-’90s Paul Thomas Anderson projects and then transitioned to broader comedy, leans on his cross-genre strengths to help Eli feel sweet without being cloying. Audiard (who wrote with his collaborator Thomas Bidegain) has no interest in forgiving the merciless rampages of the Sisters brothers. He just wants to understand what might finally derail them from that path.
Sooner than one might expect, Charlie and Eli find their quarry, and then The Sisters Brothers becomes an entirely different creature. DeWitt’s novel defied easy prediction, and Audiard honors that spirit, grinding his plot to a halt and then spinning it off into several weird directions. The violence is still there, as is the brutal honesty of life in the American West, but there’s undeniable grace, too, along with tender performances from Ahmed and Gyllenhaal.
Still, Reilly and Phoenix are the stars; eventually, they come to seem like two halves of the outlaw archetype. Eli is bluntly rational, while Charlie gets angry at the very idea of them pursuing any other way of life, convinced that their father’s madness is in their blood and cannot be outrun. “Our father drank, Charlie,” Eli reminds him, dismissing both his brother’s romanticism and mania in one fell swoop. Any time the film appears entranced by the desperado life its title characters lead, Audiard is there to pull things back to a colder truth.
The brand-new America of The Sisters Brothers is still caught in that cycle of bold fantasy and pitiless reality. It’s a land filled with prospectors looking for a different way of life, and eventually encountering the same old hierarchies, albeit in a more primitive form. The Sisters Brothers stands out because it sees that wider state of things clearly, but still believes there’s a chance—for the place and for the people in it—to evolve.