Past the Popcorn provides South King Media with exclusive reviews of Theatrical and Home Video entertainment. We aim to dig just a little deeper than the surface of what we watch.
It is clear from the get-go that the marketing department is going to be The Sisters Brothers’ greatest enemy. The first trailer set to Gloria Jones’ version of “Tainted Love” makes the movie out to be an action comedy, but the truth is that it is anything but. There is some action and a few comedic moments, but for the most part, the movie is a melancholy exploration of the challenging relationship between a pair of hired gun siblings as the modern era of civilization begins to creep in on the Old West.
Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly play the titular brothers, Charlie and Eli, respectively. They are hired by a man named called only The Commodore to hunt down a man named Hermann Kermit Warm, whom they are told has stolen something from the Commodore that he wants back. A detective played by Jake Gyllenhaal has already been sent ahead and has befriended Mr. Warm. We quickly learn that Mr. Warm has not stolen anything from the Commodore, but instead is a chemist who has developed a formula to aid the mining of gold and the Commodore wants to get his hands on it. But when his scout detective ends up befriending Mr. Warm and becoming his partner, it is left to the more aggressive approaches of the Sisters brothers.
The journey for the Sisters brothers is treacherous as they encounter bears, illness, and troublesome town owners in their pursuit of Mr. Warm. But these two men have had each other’s backs for years and they are there for the other whenever one of them faces an obstacle. However, there is also a developing friction between the two as older brother Eli begins to think about possibly putting away their guns and opening up a store. Eli is fascinated by the modern conveniences they come across, such as toothbrushes and flushing toilets. He is ready to settle down. But Charlie’s ambitions lie more in their current field of work as he has plans to take over for the aging Commodore.
Whereas Eli and Charlie sort of fit a certain archetype of Western characters, the detective and chemist played by Gyllenhaal and Riz Ahmed, respectively, are fairly unique. Gyllenhaal’s John Morris speaks in a very polished tone, clearly much more educated than the typical character you find in the Old West. He is a detective, but you get the feeling that he wishes to be a writer as he is constantly chronicling his adventures and reading them to us in an occasionally-used voiceover narrative. And Ahmed’s Hermann Kermit Warm is a soft-spoken chemist who hopes to use his formula to discover gold and use that to create a township where a more civilized way of living could be introduced. This is the second collaboration between Gyllenhaal and Ahmed following 2014’s Nightcrawler and although their chemistry is not quite up to par with the level it was in that great film, they do work well together.
The real chemistry in this movie, though, is between Reilly and Phoenix, two talented actors who nevertheless would probably not be the first pair to come to mind when finding actors to play brothers. The pair establish a rapport early on both physically—in how they move around each other with relative grace while hunting their targets in a farmhouse—and verbally—in their easy back-and-forth conversations, even when they are bickering. It is this relationship that serves as the heart of the film and the surprisingly heartfelt places the film takes these two legendarily vicious characters helps us to develop empathy for them.
The Sisters Brothers takes a relatively simple and classic western plot—gunmen for hire hunting down a target—and guide it through some unexpected turns, making this a very unique film within the Western genre. The movie is based on a book by a Canadian writer, but is directed by a French director, giving the film sort of an outsider’s look at the American west. The movie lacks the punch of director Jacques Audiard’s prison-gangster saga A Prophet and the emotional family connection of Dheepan, but it does add a lot of food for thought to the Western genre. If only it were a little closer to the entertainment that the marketing department promised as the languid pace and melancholy atmosphere keep the film from being the Western classic it probably could have been.
The Sisters Brothers opens today at the Regal Meridian 16 in downtown Seattle.