Wednesday 22 September 2021

Movie Review: The Sisters Brothers (2018)

A chase western, The Sisters Brothers features a character-rich tale of greed, science, shifting alliances, and plenty of killing.

In the American West of the 1850s, brothers Eli and Charlie Sisters (John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix) are assassins-for-hire doing the dirty work for Oregon-based industrialist The Commodore (Rutger Hauer). Brash younger brother Charlie is an expert gunslinger but also frequently drunk. The older Eli is more circumspect.

With the California gold rush in full swing, their next assignment is to catch-up with detective John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), who is supposed to find and apprehend prospector Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed). Morris does find Warm on the way to California, but they become partners once Morris learns about Warm's chemical discovery. The Sisters brothers now doggedly chase down both men, and more surprises await when the pursuers find the pursued.

An adaptation of the Patrick DeWitt novel, The Sisters Brothers is an often engrossing western with a twisty plot. French Director and co-writer Jacques Audiard draws inspiration from classics like The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre (the greedy pursuit of gold subsuming everything else) and Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid (the endless chase, here flipped twice), and adds spikes of humour and frequent shoot-outs to some visually magnificent landscapes.

The film's strength is drawn from four sharply drawn characters. In this story, the nasty cold-blooded assassins are the central protagonists. Eli and Charlie have a backstory fuelling their relaxed relationship with death, while an uneasy dynamic crackles between the two men. They actually rarely agree on anything, but they also always look after each other and combine their strengths to repeatedly get out of impossible jams.

Meanwhile, Morris is a thoughtful and soulful detective using his diary to chronicle his travels. An expert at finding men but with no interest in killing them, Morris has no difficulty finding Warm and sidling up to him. But the prospector is a shifty character and probably the smartest of the lot. A misfit and penniless chemist seeking a wild west fortune, he is a man with a different plan to get rich quick. And once Morris and the Sisters brothers find out what Warm is up to, all the agendas are shuffled. But greed is an all-consuming monster, tearing alliances apart as easily as they are forged, with the added misery of rapid physical and psychological degeneration.

The characterizations are boosted by interludes of short and sharp action, Audiard finding mixed success in seeking innovative ways to demonstrate the brothers' calculated bravura as they confront numerically superior enemies. Some of the nighttime scenes are brilliantly staged, while others are a muddle of indistinct shadows.

Small details round out The Sisters Brothers, mostly swirling around Eli. A small bug causes an inconvenient sickness; a middling but resilient horse becomes a precious companion; and a scarf from a long-ago liaison carries the symbolism of a life never to be experienced. Heartless gunslingers plagued the west, but they too were once men with hopes, dreams, and scars.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

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