Review: 'The Sisters Brothers', Joaquin Phoenix And John C. Reilly Chase Bounties And The American Dream

A legacy of violence rides side saddle with every step taken by Eli and Charlie Sisters (John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix) in acclaimed director Jacques Audiard's The Sisters Brothers. For his masterful English-language debut, the French filmmaker has chosen that most American of genres to tackle, and maybe it's his outsider perspective that allows for such a refreshing, hypnotic, and existentialist vision of the Old West. At times funny and brutal, but always with an eye towards larger concerns, the film is a passionate look at the ties that bind brothers together, even if that bond is forged in blood.

A road movie, revenge film, and observational character study, The Sisters Brothers takes place during the gold rush of the 1850s. A time of territorial expansion and big personal dreams, the Sisters boys earn their living as bounty hunters for the Commodore (Rutger Hauer), a powerful and wealthy magnate with a lot of enemies. Raised in a life of violence, it's really all the brothers know, but especially the cocky and volatile Charlie. By contrast Eli is soft-spoken and reserved, with an eye towards a more peaceful future...someday. While they may be bonded by blood, conflicting ideologies begins to drive a wedge between them at exactly the wrong time.

The brothers are hired to hunt down wayward prospector, peculiarly-named Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed), who has come up with a foolproof formula for finding gold. The plan is for Hermann to first be captured by a tracker, the refined John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal, doing a dubious English accent), for the brothers to then claim and torture for information. But not all men have the stomach for such thing, and when Morris has a change of heart and flees with Hermann to start a more civilized society, the brothers must trek through the dangerous Northwest to find them.

In the early going we frequently hear Charlie boasting of the brothers' exploits. He likes to announce their arrival, enjoying that their murderous reputations have preceded them in most cases. While Charlie sees their name as a badge of honor, and maybe a cover for his own insecurities, Eli begins to see the myth surrounding them as a dead weight dragging them down. While there are bursts of graphic bloodshed and a handful of gunfights, all well shot beautifully by cinematographer BenoƮt Debie, the most frequent disputes are of the future. What would the brothers be if they weren't in this life? While Eli sees the uncertainty as hopeful, Charlie can't envision a world of peace, at least not one with him in it.

And these concerns of identity and destiny are what drive much of the film's second half, as Audiard and co-writer Thomas Bidegain turn their focus inward. To the credit of both, they give just as much attention to the inner life of Gyllenhaal and Ahmed's characters, two men who maybe aren't meant for that era, and stare down others' condescension in wanting to build something better. It's interesting to see both actors in secondary roles, fully-formed though they are, because one could easily see Gyllenhaal or Ahmed trading places successfully with Phoenix and Reilly. As for the lead duo, both are predictably great, you don't need me to tell you that. Phoenix's Charlie is arrogant with a sharp tongue, usually reserved for putting down his older brother, but he can turn scary at a moment's notice and with an economy of words. At the same time, there's a vulnerability to Charlie that is heartbreaking, seen in quieter moments much later on when everything he knows is flipped upside down. Reilly is more than Phoenix's equal as the introspective Eli, who endures Charlie's drunken outbursts to ensure his survival, even at the cost of his own dreams. One of the film's funniest moments is also pretty tragic, as a lonely Eli has a hilariously awkward experience with a prostitute (Allison Tolman) who sees his sensitive soul.

Audiard has a way of crafting tender stories about men of action and violence (see Rust & Bone and A Prophet), who find love to be their escape from a life of cruelty. It's the connection between siblings that drives The Sisters Brothers to reach poignant, genre-breaking emotional heights.

Rating: 4 out of 5