The Sisters Brothers

****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The Sisters Brothers: 'It’s a traditional bounty hunt but with an unusual air of sophistication'
"Phoenix gives his character more depth than such men are usually afforded but deliberately takes a back seat, allowing Reilly the dramatic lead role he has long deserved." | Photo: Courtesy of San Sebastian Film Festival

"We're the Sisters brothers. Like sisters," Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix) explains in yet another town - but in many places, their reputation precedes them. They're impressive sharp-shooters, ruthless assassins, and henchmen of Oregon City crime lord the Commodore (a silent, distantly brooding Rutger Hauer). He has sent them out into the wilds in pursuit of one Hermann Warm (Riz Ahmed), who has apparently skipped town owing him money - but since finding people isn't their speciality, detective John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal) has gone ahead of them. Nothing, however, is quite what it seems. Before long they start to hear rumours that Warm has a chemical formula for finding gold, and everyone's loyalties are tested.

Adapted from the novel by Patrick Dewitt, this is, for all its twists and turns, a film more concerned with character than with plot. Charlie is hot-headed and prone to getting in trouble, very much Old West material, but it's his brother Eli (John C Reilly) who keeps the two of them alive, and Eli has been doing it for so long that he's starting to question what it's all for. As the story progresses, carrying us through a succession of vast and spectacular landscapes, we pick up little snippets of information about their past, about a bullying alcoholic father and much-loved mother (eventually glimpsed in the form of Carol Kane) - hints of how they came to be the way they are. Phoenix gives his character more depth than such men are usually afforded but deliberately takes a back seat, allowing Reilly the dramatic lead role he has long deserved. Needless to say, the older actor doesn't disappoint.

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Ahmed is also on fine form as the ambitious chemist, using his comparatively slender frame to suggest vulnerability in an environment where men generally rise to power through brutality, yet his Hermann is sharp-witted and as determined as any of the others. He also knows how to pitch a sale, gradually winning over Morris, who is very much a city gentleman and easily attuned to his wavelength. As the two pairs of men approach one another, the tension rises, but along the way there are other challenges to deal with, notably when ruthless saloon owner Mayfield (Rebecca Root) decides she wants a slice of the action. In a film with very few women she quickly shakes off any notion that they can't compete.

The trouble with all this is that despite capable performances by a dream cast, it simply never grips the way it should. The shifts of tone between gunfights, philosophical moments, nefarious scheming and business negotiations sap its energy, even though each individual strand is competently delivered. It's a big, rambling ale that would have made a great mini series but, though it looks fabulous on the big screen, it doesn't pack enough of a punch as a two hour epic. Something is missing. It may just be that Jacques Audiard's mastery of every classic western trope makes it feel too familiar.

There is still a lot to recommend this film. In particular, the way that things eventually fall apart takes us into a melancholy space where all the actors are in their element. Though earlier scenes deliver all the requisite genre action, the lack of grandstanding in the latter scenes proves to be a real strength. There is something different being said here about the way the West was won. It's a shame that Audiard takes so long to find his voice. That viewers bear with the film in the meantime is largely thanks to Reilly.

Reviewed on: 07 Feb 2019
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The Sisters Brothers packshot
Two assassins set out into the wilderness on the trail of a man with a secret.

Director: Jacques Audiard

Writer: Jacques Audiard, Thomas Bidegain, Patrick Dewitt

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Jake Gyllenhaal, John C. Reilly, Rutger Hauer, Riz Ahmed, Carol Kane, Creed Bratton, Duncan Lacroix, Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson, Niels Arestrup, Rebecca Root, Aldo Maland, Ian Reddington, Philip Rosch, Lexie Benbow-Hart

Year: 2018

Runtime: 121 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: France, Spain, Romania, US


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