@Filmhouse Edinburgh from Fri 19 Apr 2019
The Western has long been considered that most particularly American of film genres, which is quite fitting considering how synonymous the Western has been with early cinema. However, its long history has allowed it to evolve into one of the most experimental of arenas for modern filmmakers, which is particularly true in the hands of an exceptional auteur such as Jacques Audiard, best known for his films A Prophet and Rust and Bone. Here he shows a deft hand, both directing and writing the adaptation of Patrick DeWitt’s novel.
It’s also no surprise that a French neo-Western would show signs of experimental postmodernism, and it’s into that fine cadre of movies, such as Blueberry, The Homesman and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, that The Sisters Brothers comfortably slots.
The film concerns the adventures of Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix) and Eli Sisters (John C. Reilly), the titular pair of squabbling brother bounty hunters, each of whom is quirkily odd in his own way, while lethally dangerous when the moment requires it. Working for the mysterious Commodore (Rutger Hauer), they set out to hunt down defaulting debtors and thieves, and then shoot them repeatedly – but their latest simple mission becomes complicated by a series of unfortunate setbacks and injuries. At the same time, the detective (Jake Gyllenhaal) sent to hold their target, visionary chemist Hermann Kermitt Warm (Riz Ahmed), befriends and teams up with him, which leads all involved to rethink their lives, decisions and place in the world.
It’s a slow-paced, dialogue-heavy film, one that takes a little while to get into and find its rhythm. But once it gets going, it’s hugely engaging, warmly endearing and occasionally hysterically funny. The dry wit of the script means that the dialogue is always harshly believable, and genuinely fun. Meanwhile, the titular brothers are as infuriating as they are lovable, replete with flaws and quirks that madden and surprise.
The film also finds itself wandering into moments of fascination with the mundanity of real life that is usually absent from Westerns, from Eli’s newly found fascination with brushing his teeth, to the perils of spider-bites and ever-present dangers of injury and infection.
While it’s a simple story in outline, the real brilliance of the film is in how Audiard captures the nature of relationships between people, from trust and reliance, to betrayal, and love, all of which is mostly told from the view of Eli’s simple but thoughtful perspective. It may wobble in the opening, but beyond that it’s a well-crafted and satisfying Western.