As blockbuster cinema continues to abandon any type of film that isn’t tied to a lucrative intellectual property, it has increasingly been left to the independents to pick up the genre movie slack. If you want to watch superheroes fighting emojis, Hollywood has you covered on over 4,000 screens nationwide, but if you’re looking for prison films, romantic comedies and westerns, you usually need to search through the video-on-demand and art house margins.
Left almost entirely to anti-establishment veterans and aspiring auteurs, the western genre has particularly enjoyed a revisionist revival of late. Films as diverse as Kelly Reichardt’s naturalistic Meek’s Cutoff, Tommy Lee Jones’ bleak The Homesman, John Maclean’s slightly absurdist Slow West, Kristian Levring’s reverent The Salvation and Quentin Tarantino’s comic book-style Django Unchained have brought new energy and urgency to a horseshoed genre that once seemed destined for the glue factory.
Jacques Audiard’s ramshackle western The Sisters Brothers rides in the same revisionist posse as the films mentioned above, and although it doesn’t offer much that is new or unique, it still makes for thoughtful and moving adult entertainment. It is not uncommon for an established foreign director to struggle with inserting their voice and style into their English-language debut, but French filmmaker Jacques Audiard (The Beat That My Heart Skipped; A Prophet; Dheepan) makes a seamless transition.
Audiard specializes in visceral yet intimate genre pieces, and his films have always been more about mood, character and emotional intensity than cleverness or subtlety, so the language barrier was probably a non-issue. Certainly, the script by Audiard and his frequent collaborator Thomas Bidegain features the sort of restless narrative, deliberately constructed character dynamics and tonal mood swings that we have come to expect from his films.
A dream team of Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly stars as Charlie and Eli Sisters, bickering brothers and bounty hunters practicing their deadly trade in the Oregon Territory of the early 1850s. The employees of a crime lord called The Commodore, Charlie and Eli are assigned to abduct and torture Hermann Warm (Riz Ahmed), a chemist working on a gold divining process. An overeducated detective named John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal) has already been dispatched to find and deliver Warm, but the two men form a friendship and slip away together, while the Sisters brothers make a corpse-strewn pursuit.
Both inheritors of their dead father’s violent nature, the Sisters brothers are good at what they do, but their partnership is starting to disintegrate. Charlie has become a violent and slovenly drunk, falling off his horse after an all-nighter in a saloon, and yet he can’t envision a life beyond killing. Meanwhile, Eli has grown tired of the work, dreaming of the domestic comforts offered in an increasingly civilized west, but he still feels an obligation to protect his out-of-control brother.
Phoenix is very good as the hot-tempered Charlie, but Reilly steals the show as the comparatively gentle Eli, providing this rough-edged film with a soulful center.