The Sisters Brothers (2018) ☆☆☆(3/4): Two hitman brothers in the West

Jacques Audiard’s new film “The Sisters Brothers” is an offbeat work which has a small fun with its familiar genre elements. As leisurely rolling its main characters along their long, perilous journey, the movie deftly balances itself between gritty violence, introspective drama, and black humor, and then it surprises us via several unexpected moments of irony and poignancy later in the film. Although it demands some patience due to its slow narrative plot, it is still an interesting experience thanks to its mood, storytelling, and performance, and I admired its good elements even though I am not wholly enthusiastic about it.

The movie opens with the latest job of Eli and Charlie Sisters (John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix), two hitman brothers who have worked together for a man called Commodore (Rutger Hauer). It is around the 1850s, and the West remains brutal and violent despite the ongoing advance of civilization, as reflected from how Eli and Charlie swiftly and ruthlessly eliminate their opponents including the main target one by one.

Not long after finishing their latest job and then returning to a city where Commodore lives, Eli and Charlie receive a new order from Commodore. There is a chemist named Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed), and, as revealed later in the story, he has a certain chemical formula which is priceless considering the ongoing Gold Rush in California. He is currently being pursued by a detective named John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), and all Eli and Charlie have to do is extracting that formula in question from Warm once Morris catches and then hands down Warm to them.

The job seems to be easy at first, but, of course, Eli and Charlie come across several troubles while following after Warm and Morris. During one small amusing moment, Eli gets very sick due to a poison spider, and there is also an incident involved with a big bear. In addition, it later turns out that there is the other figure who is also quite interested in Warm’s formula, and that certainly makes the situation more complicated.

While finding themselves more stuck in their mission, Eli and Charlie come to have a growing conflict between them. While Eli talks about how much he has been tired of their dirty and dangerous job and also considers changing his profession more than before, Charlie does not give a damn about their future as frequently drinking a lot as usual, and Eli does not like that much, though he still feels obliged to stand by his younger brother as before.

Meanwhile, Morris comes closer to Warm as introducing himself as a fellow traveler, and Warm is grateful to the unexpected help from Morris, but, not so surprisingly, there comes a moment when Warm realizes Morris’ real intention. I will not describe in detail what subsequently happens between them, but I can tell you instead that the adapted screenplay by Audiard and his co-adaptor Thomas Bidegain, which is based on the novel of the same name by Patrick deWitt, surprises us more when their storyline eventually crosses with the main storyline belonging to Eli and Charlie. While watching the second half of the movie, I could not help but reminded of John Huston’s “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” (1948), and Audiard and Bidegain’s adapted screenplay did not disappoint me at all during a key scene involved with Warm’s formula.

The movie also distinguishes itself via its vivid, realistic period atmosphere accompanied with a number of nice touches to be appreciated. I enjoyed a small moment associated with a certain modern item, and I also like a short scene where Eli and Charlie come to enjoy many modern stuffs including a water closet during their brief respite in San Francisco. While cinematographer Benoît Debie provides numerous wide landscape shots as required, the score by Alexandre Desplat, who has been one of Audiard’s usual collaborators, is mostly effective although it does not sound much like your typical western movie score, and the production design by Michel Barthélémy and the costume by Milena Canonero are also impeccable on the whole.

The main cast members of the movie are well-cast in their respective roles. While John C. Reilly, who has been one of the most dependable character actors working in Hollywood, holds the ground well with his diligent performance, Joaquin Phoenix, who is no stranger to troubled characters as shown from “The Master” (2012) and “You Were Never Really Here” (2017), perfectly complements Reilly’s acting, and we can always sense a long history between their characters even when they do not talk much with each other. Jake Gyllenhaal and Riz Ahmed, who previously worked together in “Nightcrawler” (2014), are also entertaining to watch as their characters interact more with each other along the story, and it is nice to see Rutger Hauer, Allison Tolman, and Carol Kane briefly appearing as small but crucial supporting characters in the film.

In conclusion, “The Sisters Brothers”, which recently garnered the Silver Lion for Best Director at the Venice International Film Festival, is a well-made western film packed with enjoyable goodies, and it is a shame that it is quickly forgotten due to its box office failure in US. Although it is less impressive than Audiard’s previous works such as “A Prophet” (2009) and “Rust and Bone” (2012), I had a fairly good time with it at least, and I think it deserves more attention as a curious genre exercise.

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