The Sisters Brothers
2018, R, 121 min. Directed by Jacques Audiard. Starring John C. Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix, Jake Gyllenhaal, Riz Ahmed, Rutger Hauer, Rebecca Root, Allison Tolman.
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., Sept. 28, 2018
There’s nowhere we humans go without carting our baggage along with us, and that includes the movie theatre. In the case of The Sisters Brothers, my baggage is hardback and runs 336 pages long. In 2011, I fell a little in love with one-half of the title sibling duo of Patrick deWitt’s black-comic Western novel. Not Charlie Sisters (he’s the one with the hair-trigger temper; more about him in a minute), but his brother Eli, a wistful romantic stuck in a tubby body and a soul-crushing job as a contract killer. Eli’s inner monologue – his blunt yet poetical voice and the strange, wending ways his brain moved – is what made DeWitt’s story so singular.
Adapting the book became a labor of love for John C. Reilly, who co-produces and stars as Eli. He gets the body right but can’t quite catch the spirit. I don’t think that’s his fault. The script, by Thomas Bidegain and director Jacques Audiard (Rust and Bone, A Prophet), eliminates Eli’s stream of consciousness, that open window into his soul. His lyrical strangeness instead finds new spigots in the film via Alexandre Desplat’s jazzy, unsettling score and Audiard’s revisioning of the classic Western’s clean breaks between good and bad. A shoot-out framed far away and in pitch black makes it impossible to divine the heroes from the villains. (In this Wild West, what’s the difference, anyway?) Another high-noon reckoning shoots metaphorical blanks.
In Audiard’s film, how we come to know Eli’s character is in how it contrasts to his brother Charlie’s (Phoenix, funny and limber with the freedom of being second-billed). Charlie rides his horse crotch-first and kills without compunction. Eli moves through the world with a slump and questions the morality of their work, especially this latest assignment from a kingpin named the Commodore (Hauer). The job is to track Hermann Kermit Warm (Ahmed), a kindly chemist, through Gold Rush country, and kill him. Eli wants to know why Warm should die, and eventually so too does the Commodore’s advance man, John Morris (Gyllenhaal, perfect diction and dandy comportment), who befriends Warm even as he sends reports of his whereabouts back to the Sisters Brothers. Morris’ letters and diary entries end up giving the film a kind-of narrator after all, with his observations and distinctive cadence bringing the audience in closer, curiously mimicking the same connection readers felt to Eli.
Turns out that egalitarianism – the shift from a singular voice to a more rounded perspective – is the greatest strength of this adaptation, which sheds the book’s picaresque plotting for a straight path to put the four men together in the same place. Allegiances shift. Reilly, Phoenix, Gyllenhaal, and Ahmed – a murderers’ row of outstanding character actors who all moonlight as leading men – take the script’s raw materials (daddy issues, the trauma of being bullied, the civilizing effect of a toothbrush) and forge new bonds with a few words, a light look. The film treats their growing intimacy, in all its permutations, like an objet d’art, to be turned over and examined, delicately, from every angle. When they’re together, the film is electric.