Divided Siblings Drive "Sisters"
While reports of the death of the western have been exaggerated, there’s no question that the genre has been on life support for some time. For a while it seemed as though Clint Eastwood, Kevin Costner and Tommy Lee Jones were the only ones interested in keeping the Oater alive, though the occasional one would make it to the screen, with the rest destined for straight-to-video release. However, on occasion a brave (foolhardy?) producer will throw caution and demographic studies of frequent filmgoers to the wind and dare to make a gun-slinging adventure.
One such filmmaker would be actor John C. Reilly, who optioned the novel The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt in 2011 and has been struggling to get it to the big screen ever since. Tapping French director Jacques Audiard, best known for the art house hits A Prophet and Rust and Bone to adapt the story, the resulting film is an interesting curiosity, more a character study of two siblings rather than a revisionist take on the western, pairing a rugged adventure with a psychological examination of two killers.
Though their experiences have been similar, Eli and Charlie Sisters couldn’t be more different. The former (Reilly) has grown weary of making his living doing mercenary jobs for a West Coast industrialist known as the Commodore (Rutger Hauer). Long nights on the range, killing for money and risking death have lost their allure for him and he longs to settle down with a school teacher back home. Far more damaged, Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix) feels right at home with his maraudering ways, getting drunk often and reveling in the grisly reputation he’s created that often proceeds him. On their latest assignment for the Commodore – to track down advance scout John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal) who is supposed to apprehend Hermann Warm (Riz Ahmed), who has a secret way of finding gold – the brothers realize just how far they’ve drifted apart, a division that will tear their partnership asunder and perhaps cost them their lives.
Audiard takes his time telling this tale, the parallel storylines concerning the two separate parties becoming too cumbersome at times. The deliberate pace may be an effort to replicate the leisurely way of the pre-Civil War Era, yet at times it seems as though the filmmaker is daring our minds to wander. However, there’s an immersive quality to the film that envelopes the viewer and is hard to shake. The meticulous period detail and language, as well as the lived-in performances from all the principals outweigh the movie’s shortcomings as it provides us with a glimpse of the West that other westerns often fall short in creating.
The conflicting nature of the Sisters brothers provides an intriguing subplot as well as some wonderful moments for Reilly and Phoenix. While the latter is given some scene-stealing moments what with Charlie’s frequent bouts of drunkenness, the actor never goes too far, reminding us periodically of the tragedy that surrounds this damaged man. Meanwhile, Reilly is given numerous quiet scenes when we see Eli desperately trying to hang on to the slivers of his humanity that remain, which are constantly threatened by the violent world he lives in.
In the end, Brothers overstays its welcome and its unsatisfactory conclusion doesn’t help. Yet the film’s conceit that we are capable and worthy of a world free of violence is certainly a worthy one. Too bad some think such notions are antiquated and outmoded. They’re the same that think westerns are just as out of step with the times.